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Portrait: Woodkid

CEO's should not decide how I make music!

Published 8:01 am on Tuesday 10th November 2020 by Beat Magazine

Beat / It‘s been about seven years since your debut album. The obvious question is, why did it take so long to produce a successor?

Yoann / It felt like time flew. When I finished my first album, I had the feeling that I needed to take some more time to make my second record. I felt a bit burned out and there was a lot to learn. Accordingly, in the last few years I have mainly been concerned with getting better, made a few collaborations and met other people. Then one morning I woke up, the album was done, and it was seven years. But I‘ve always taken a lot of time for my projects, whether it‘s videos or music. I think that time has a lot of value. The more time you take for something, the more value it has in my view. It‘s also a political issue - especially in these days when everything is so fast moving. I feel a bit of exhaustion due to the speed of the music industry and the world in general. So it was my rebellion to some extent. When the Spotify boss says that artists have to release music less than every three years if they want to make money, then I give myself all the more time.

Beat / It sounds like a cliché, but the album was definitely worth the waiting. The title “S16” has been a secret for a while. What‘s behind it?

Yoann / S16 is the chemical periodic number for sulphur. In a way, I built the album around the element sulphur. I was very interested in it from the very beginning because it is so ambiguous. It has a lot to do with life, as it is used as fertilizer, for example, and is also one of the components of life on earth. But it can also be a very toxic element and is the symbol of the devil in alchemy. So I found the idea of building the whole album campaign around sulphur very interesting. There is a complete ARG (Alternate Reality Game) online that deals with a fictional company that I built for this purpose. There is also a website and a fake Facebook profile.

Beat / Does it also run through the lyrics?

Yoann / Yes, some of them. In general there are a lot of chemical and medical terms. And I think the concept of toxicity is a link of the whole record.

Beat / That is interesting, because the album sounds very emotional and soulful.

Yoann / Yes, it‘s also a lot about emotions, but I use metaphors that have a bigger scale. It is important to me that everyone can find their story in it and that it is not reduced to my personal experiences. But in the end it‘s all somehow chemistry. For example “Pale Yellow” - the colour of sulphur. It‘s about a very intimate personal relationship, about addiction. It is an often industrial, chemical, almost scientific-sounding language as in “release the drain and let the fluid go”. It‘s about the idea that the body is, in a sense, a machine.

Beat / Did you work on these songs for seven years?

Yoann / I started early 2015 when I had the feeling that I had something to say again and was emotionally in a state that was triggering making music. Back then I did sessions with Son Lux and other French artists. At the time, I was also part of the People collective started by The National, Bon Iver, and a few others. We were in Berlin together and organized a festival at Funkhaus. That inspired me to continue to produce my songs that were created in this context. So I didn‘t work on new songs all the time. It was more like I planted the song seeds and then I let them grow, for example in collaborations. And if after five years they still felt good, they came on the album. But it‘s not that I made 200 songs and chose ten. There were a total of 12 to 15 tracks, some of which were also combined into one piece.

Beat / The album sounds more experimental and diverse than the debut. Were there any concrete musical influences?

Yoann / Yes, a lot, but not necessarily in concrete terms. So I can‘t name any specific songs or artists. I am fascinated by minimalist, repetitive music from the 70s and appreciate composers like Glass and Stockhausen very much, even if I don‘t necessarily like his music in the traditional sense. But I really appreciate the concept behind it. I tried to bring more adversity and independence into the music, especially when working with the orchestra. The instruments take on a life of their own, so to speak, and don‘t just play permanently in an ensemble. But industrial music was also a big influence, although I wanted to present my own interpretation of it. Likewise, Japanese music is a central influence that I wanted to include in my sound for a long time. In the end there is a very bizarre mashup of different worlds.

Beat / Did you consciously want to approach things differently compared to “The Golden Age”?

Yoann / Yes, the music should be more perverted. When I started working with the orchestra on the first album, I initially only had a vague idea and didn‘t know how to write for symphonic instruments. I think we made a very straight- forward approach to the album, which makes it sound like a Hollywood blockbuster. But in the past seven years, both my influences and my knowledge have increased. I not only learned what you can traditionally do with these instruments, but also unusual techniques. Right from the start, I wanted the topic of toxicity to be the focus. There‘s something viral about the album, it‘s kind of infective. This is reflected in the orchestral work, where instruments are sometimes out of tune and many bends are played. In the mix, on the other hand, a great dynamic was important, so that the listener literally is surprised by some loud passages. If you look at the waveforms, you can see the dynamics very clearly, because they are not flat sausages. Silence or suddenly cut reverbs also play into this concept, as there are some radical changes. Sometimes the reverb rooms and mono vs. stereo concepts change several times within a song. None of this was so radical on the debut.

Beat / Yes, there is a lot to discover.

Yoann / I‘m very proud of the album because I think it‘s a toolbox full of ideas. There are many little inventions that came with random processes that were surprising even to me. And sometimes it was more about finding unusual sound associations. There are no drums, guitars and basses on the album. So there is nothing rock about it. It was more about finding sounds that were different.

Beat / Let us know more about the work with the orchestra.

Yoann / We recorded with the Abbey Road orchestra in London. So a childhood dream came true. It lets the album sound so much better than the demos.

Beat / Did you combine it with programmed orchestra elements?

Yoann / Yes, a lot. My music has always this ambiguity. You never know if something’s real or not. This kind of illusion is a common thing of all the songs on the record. I was working a lot on the computer and programmed a lot, but often out of organic elements that we had recorded before. And when I program things I always try to bring a human quality into it, so there are always variations and it never feels like copy paste.

Beat / How did you arrange the parts for the orchestra? In MIDI?

Yoann / Usually I sit at the piano and write a first draft arrangement. After that I work with professional arrangers who write it down properly because I‘m not very good at writing for the orchestra. Then we record it and then I go back to the studio and do my tweaks. Sometimes I write things that I already know I will manipulate later. For example, we record something five semitones higher so that I can pitch it later because I know I‘m aiming for something darker. Or playing it faster and then slowing it down. It’s a back and fourth between the real world and the machines.

Beat / Did you personally attend the orchestra recordings?

Yoann / Yes, of course. It’s always exciting, but when you’re recording in places like that, time is very precious and you have a tight schedule. So you don‘t have time to be enthusiastic. Often you only notice in the editing room what was great or not. They are an amazing orchestra and it’s a great recording place but if you don’t give them the proper recording material, it doesn‘t end up sounding good either. And you can only find out whether it is really good at the end of the day in your own studio by listening to it on your own monitor system.

Beat / There’s also a choir involved in some songs...

Yoann / It’s the Suginami Junior Chorus that I was working with four years ago when I was writing the music for a Nicolas Ghesquiere fashion show. It’s a show with martial arts influenced outfits. I did some research on choirs and found this choir that we recorded with last December before the lockdown in Japan. It was the idea that a choir with kids would reference parts of the culture that I also really like, for example certain video games or the movie “Ghost In The Shell”.

Beat / There’s a lot of piano to be heard on the album. How as it recorded?

Yoann / It’s a mixture of several pianos. I have some samples that I really like the sound of. It’s a heavily deconstructed and fragmented record, and sometimes I switch from one piano to another within a song. Or I create different layers. But I also have a Hoffmann piano in my studio, which I really like. It has a progressive felt and can be controlled with the left hand. So you have a little button at the left side, which lets the felt come down more and more on the hammers. It enables you to play in a very muted way. In addition I recorded some parts in the studio of Sigur Ròs in Iceland on their piano.

Beat / You have already produced videos for many stars, including Lana Del Rey, Moby and Katy Perry. Did this help you get Woodkid established?

Yoann / Yes I think so. However, it also showed me what I don‘t want. I would never format my music for any particular type of media. When the Spotify CEO is telling us musicians that we’re lazy and need to stop complaining. Fuck it, then I take seven years. I think there’s something idiotic about this comment as it doesn’t consider the question of mental health in the music industry. Sometimes I just need a lot of time because it is very demanding to make music and to expose yourself. Of course some people do amazing music in two weeks, but that’s not who I am. It should be considered that every artist is different. I don’t like the idea that CEOs decide how we make music. It should be the other way around.

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The Producer Blog
by Beat Magazine

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