Back in the early 2000's, I was in my late teens, and I had a fan site about Cat Power, through which I would regularly receive e-mails and mail from people sending me a copy of their zine, or stories about Chan Marshall, asking me to promote their photography website, etc. And one day, I got an e-mail from a french person asking me to listen to their band's demo. I think they had a cover band of Cat Power music, and they were called Metal Heart.
A little bit later, I was active on livejournal (yes, I am old), and I think there were people on there who would sometimes post photos of a singer named Half Asleep they would see at local shows.
Somehow those two pieces of information melted into this third event:
Fast forward 10-15 years, and I am standing inside a record store, staring at a Half Asleep LP, thinking it looks so nice. Then I remembered the information about Half Asleep, and the information about Metal Heart, the two collided into one false memory of "that band who sent me their demo once". So I bought the record (yay!), came home, put it on the shelf, and never listened to it (whyyyy? - no idea)
Her music was so haunting, so terribly dark and strong and preciously fragile at the same time, the tensions in the sounds mirroring the tensions of her body language, still generously flooding the room with honesty. I got out of there so energised and excited and shaky and and and... You know, that feeling when you see that there is something out there that kind of looks like something you have inside of you?
So then on a day of boredom, I picked up the record, played it, looked at the sleeve, and finally the pieces fell into place: Half Asleep is not Metal Heart (what happened to Metal Heart the Cat Power cover band anyway?). And the universe opened up. Since then, I got to know Valérie a tiny little bit more, saw her play a few times, with her friends and / or her sister, ... still a little bit petrified by the effect of her dark, courageous, melancholic songs on me...
Here are some videos for you to get an idea of what I'm talking about... Valérie kindly sent me all those links and I just can't make a selection, so here are all of them. You can also check out her bandcamp site, and her soundcloud page if you want to hear more!
And here are her answers to the questions! With some photos! :)
1) how do you usually describe what you do?
To people who ask what I do, I just say ‘music’ as a joke – but only because I assume they are asking to be polite and wouldn’t be interested in hearing a well-developed answer. Now to those who ask what kind of music, I always tell “songwriting” or acoustic songwriting. What I like about using “songwriting” as a label is that it is very flexible and does not point to any specific style of music. Instead what gives a songwriting project its identity is the songwriter’s personality. As a music lover, I am myself usually more attracted to solo artists because I find that when someone can freely follow his or her inspiration, the result is often more daring, more varied, more intimate too. Think: Robert Wyatt, Nico, Tim Buckley, PJ Harvey. What’s interesting to me is the unique, highly personal world each of these musicians created and the way their music evolved over the years. Scott Walker’s crooner ballads of the 60s have, in a sense, nothing to do with his violent experimental pieces of the 2000s, but they are all propositions formulated by a true songwriter, and they are all part of a greater unity defined by Walker’s intelligence and bold sensibility. I feel like bands are heavier to handle and their music is much more often defined by compromises than by sharp expressions of individuality. Unless they have a very strong leader, all that sticks out, all singular projections or excrescences, have to be shaved off so as to obtain a form that satisfies everyone involved. And any change of direction must be approved by three, four, five individuals, each with their own tastes and limits.
As a musician, I really hate compromise, especially when applied to music that I’ll later have to call my own. In everyday life, I am weak-willed, a real pushover, but strangely enough, I see myself as a really stubborn musician. I would never have thought that I’d have the courage to put music into the world on my own but I am glad this is ultimately the shape my project took. Now I am not sure I really have embraced all the freedom that comes with being a songwriter yet, in fact I am sure I haven’t. Being insolent or fearless wasn’t certainly part of my initial plan, I thought everything had already been done anyway and just wanted to create something genuine. But now, I can feel the excitement of large open spaces, I love to remember that I can do whatever I want and get really frustrated with people who have no other ambition than to stick to the rule.
2) how and why did you start creating?
2) how and why did you start creating?
I started to “write” music probably one or two years after I stopped taking music lessons and my mother, sister, brother and I moved out of Brussels. There was a piano in our new house and since I only had learned five short pieces in music classes, I quickly ran out of things to play. Also I was listening to so much music at the time and was so passionate about it. I can’t remember that well – I must have been about 13 or 14 – but I think I had just discovered Tori Amos and, retrospectively, it wouldn’t be surprising if her work inspired me to try writing music for myself. The first two years, I only “composed” short instrumental pieces on the piano (the quote marks mean I can’t technically write music so I don’t know if this can be called “composing”); I didn’t even consider trying to sing, the thought never crossed my mind. Then progressively, and because the voices and words of my favourite singer-songwriters exerted a growing fascination on me, these little pieces turned into songs.
Creating music was very exciting to me, I felt it was very rewarding too – both intellectually and emotionally. Today I can’t decide if I dove so deep into music because I was lonely, or if I was a lonely teenager only because music was such an essential part of my life that it didn’t leave room for much else. The latter interpretation may seem unlikely but the more I think of it, the more I wonder. I never was bullied at school, nor was I an outcast of any sort. Generally people liked me and I am sure some would have loved to have become closer friends. But I kept everyone at a safe distance and usually preferred spending hours alone in my room than with people who’d had the courage to elect me as friend and were trying to pull me by the hand. I had a very intense creative “interior life” as a teenager and life inside that space was so stimulating and warm, most of the time this is where I wanted to be. The strange contradiction here is that, in order to be creative, I needed and wanted isolation from the world and others, but then the product of this creativity turned out to be all about how much loneliness hurts. I don’t necessarily think you need to hurt to be creative. But looking back, I realise that this is what I’ve always done: cultivating solitude and a form of melancholy to sustain and feed my creative instincts. I am not sure what it says about me. Does it mean I am a fake? Sometimes I feel I haven’t suffered enough to be allowed to write such sad music. But the problem is also of an aesthetic nature: sad music is the only kind of music I want to write. Sad music makes me happy.
3) could you describe the steps of your creative process?
It always starts with the music. Usually, I sit at the piano or with my guitar and find a motif that I like which I then try to develop into a longer musical structure. At that point I always leave the composition open and start focusing on the lyrics and the vocal melody. I always let the words and meaning emerge from the music itself. I am not really a storyteller (or at least not in the purest sense of the word), there are rarely stories or particular themes, specific people or events I want to write about. The information music gives (which I try to absorb) are more elusive, they are emotions, feelings, images, memories. Writing is just one repeated attempt at pinning down and describing the fleeting sensations contained in the music itself. Of course, technically, it is not the music “speaking” here, but me. Music works as a revelator that singles out specific units from this infinite database constituted by my brain and body and pull them up to the surface. This whole process became very clear to me three years ago when I was trying to write one particular song. I had found on the guitar this five-note pattern that I really liked and didn’t know what to do with. I would probably have discarded it if it wasn’t for the strong visual impression it left on me. For days I had this image stuck in my head: it was just before twilight, at the edge of a sparse wood, I imagined two people standing hypnotized at the foot of an electric pole as if something powerful, unknown to men, was about to be revealed. Soon this first image merged with a memory I had of a walk I took with my friends Delphine Dora and Dana Hilliot a few years ago on a high plateau in central France. We were walking in the thickest of fogs, couldn’t see further than 6 or 7 meters in front of us. In the fields adjoining the road, pairs of eyes were emerging slowly, one by one, from the thick white cloud; cows were staring at us as if we were intruders and fog was their natural element. At one point, we heard a muffled electric buzzing sound and arrived at the foot of a wind turbine, the head of which we couldn’t even see when we raised our heads. The whole walk was very eerie, we didn’t talk much. Later I wove elements of these two visions into a text. It took me such a long time to do so, though, and the images triggered by these five little notes were so haunting, that these transient objects functioning as bridges between the music and the lyrics, were made more visible than usual. From the first vision, I kept the location, the electricity, a hypnotic sensation and the feelings of anticipation, excitement and fear. From the second episode, I kept the motion of walking, the buzzing sound, the hidden, quiet presence of livestock, etc. Writing lyrics, to me, feels like a patient game of association, like a long wandering through a timeless and a-geographical space where all possible things can be summoned and connected together to create something new. This something new is never fully about me, but also never fully about something else.
More pragmatically, my songs are in English but I always write the English text and the translated French version simultaneously, I don’t know why, it is as if I needed to gauge the relevance of the words in both languages to be sure of their impact. The vocal melody too, has to be constructed in simultaneity with the words. Once the lyrics and vocal melody are finished, the musical structure of the song can be adjusted, closed up and acquire its definitive form.
4) do you believe that what you do comes from yourself, or do you believe you are the vessel of another "something" that expresses itself through you?
I think it comes from myself but is at the same time so intensely mine that it becomes mysterious, even to me. I’ve always thought of music as an Absolute, as something larger than life, something that goes beyond understanding. There is this very strange succession of images that I get in my head when I think about this : the first is of Isabelle Huppert’s back and right arm at the 2001 Cannes festival bearing the inscription “God can thank Bach because Bach is the proof of God’s existence” (2001 was the year Haneke’s La Pianiste won the Palme d’Or); the second is an elevated view of the inside of a church, or more specifically a view of something floating in that large empty space trapped between the chairs and altar, and the stone vaults. I read in a book several months ago someone describing that floating entity as “cooled-down prayers” and I thought it was really beautiful but what I see there instead is Bach’s music (or at least what I know of it). The third image is a conglomerate of all Bergman’s movies, in a very deep, saturated black and white. Bergman and Bach: this might sound very pretentious but my attachment to those two figures is very simple and instinctive, and I’m sure I don’t understand half of what their work really is about but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that their work stands out in my mind as the very sensation of this Absolute, of this pure object which does not really care to advertise its presence to anyone, which is just floating there quietly and could very well be God. This protestant-ish austere intensity, I see it as a way to reach the very core of things. And when I “create” music, there is always a little bit of that. Not that I consciously try to touch or to incarnate this Absolute, not that I would ever be capable of doing so. But rather there is this idea that maybe “my” music comes both from me and from this mysterious core (that could be inside of me, or everywhere around me, or outside all things). Or maybe, music just comes from a place that has nothing to do with the mystery of music, only with the mystery of being, and strives to reach this Absolute of music on its own. Or maybe all this is bullshit and the only unfathomable, overflowing, overwhelming, transcendent thing that exists is in fact my love for music.
5) do you have habits concerning time, objects, location, when you are creating?
No particular habits. Or perhaps one: I usually need to be in the most isolated room of the apartment so that no one can hear what I’m doing, including my neighbours. This caused me to spend a fair amount of time in bathrooms and hallways.
6) does the "finished product" usually looks like what you had imagined, or do you usually end up with something different than what you had in mind?
No, it definitely never looks or sounds like what I had in mind when I started. Most of the time it’s really frustrating because it seems that what you can do is never as good as what you can imagine. Although I find that the largest gap between the imagined and the real song is often not in its basic structure and content, but most often in the arrangements. That’s probably because I rarely try to imagine a piece before I start writing it, my imagination usually hits full gear once its initial shape has been given to the piece. Visualizing the arrangements on the basis of a simple piano track, or voice and guitar track, is actually one of my favourite things to do in the world. While I listen to those first versions, I can hear a trumpet here, a trombone there, or a cello, or weird percussions, or I’ll try to sketch out the different vocal parts. I write my ideas down on scraps of paper which I generally lose then rediscover later. Since I am a slow “finisher”, it sometimes takes months and years before I start to record the arrangements. So I spend months and years with only idealized arrangements in my head and they are of course always grandiose, complex and beautiful. This is actually the stage at which I am now with my next album, and I am well aware of the fact that what I have in mind will never come to be, all the more so that I’ve asked other people to interfere and work with me on the songs. But that’s ok. It is always hard for me to let go because I have such a specific vision of what I want but I know I will have to, just as I will have to trust the talent of my collaborators. The beautiful thing though, is that it also means that I don’t know where I am going to end up. Letting go can lead you to pretty unexpected places and the excitement of that compensates for the loss of an imaginary perfection.
7) how do you decide that a piece is finished?
As far as the music is concerned, I generally reach a conclusion very instinctively. It all depends of the piece: if it has a more narrative, evolutive feel, then I have the tendency to attach additional parts to the early version. If I find that the different parts don’t flow organically into each other, or that one part or another doesn’t really add to the meaning of the piece, then I try to revert back to a simpler structure. The length of a song never worries me, I’d even say the longer the better. Short songs actually make me more nervous. For a short song to work, it has to be really strong and powerful. On this album I’m working on at the moment, something else happened too: three songs are actually built around one single chord, and in each case, the same reason prevented me to add other chords. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this but sometimes you find three or four notes that, when played together, create a very particular tension or atmosphere. I am very interested in tensions; one of the main themes or sensations that I want to explore in my work is that of the invisible threat. If you are familiar with Harold Pinter’s comedy of menace, that is partly what I try to achieve (but with a lot less humour because I can’t for the life of me inject humour into a song). Some of my favourite movies of the last decade are explorations of this idea of an intangible menace: Winter’s Bone, Take Shelter, Martha Marcy May Marlene, even Von Trier’s Melancholia. And there is also something incredibly cinematographic in that particular feeling. Now if you’ve ever paid attention to movie soundtracks, you know that three notes are often enough to create tension. Often if you add more notes, other sensations will inevitably seep in, a ray of sunshine, some form of sadness, relief. So that’s what happened with those three one-chord songs. If I wanted them to speak exclusively of that feeling, if I wanted to never release the tension or open a door for the listener to slip out, I had to maintain this unique chord all along and add nothing more. And you’d think it is easy to do, but it is not. I kept trying to extend the pieces, to add parts or at least to find a second chord that would prolong the tone of the first and unlock the rest of the composition, but nothing worked. Ultimately, I gave up. Simplicity is definitively not my default mode. But I’m glad the songs are often strong enough to dictate what’s best for them.
Writing lyrics is a bit different. I used to be satisfied pretty quickly with what I wrote. But it was only the consequence of my disinterest for the specificity of the words I sang. I really started writing song lyrics because I wanted to use the sound of a voice, just as I wanted to use the sound of other instruments, and needed words and sentences to do so. Not that I was writing nonsensical rubbish. I’ve always loved writing and actually enjoyed finding images and sensations to describe. But I really started with the idea that my voice and the words I sang should not be considered more important than the main piano track or a flute melody. As a result, my lyrics were not published, my voice was purposefully under-mixed, etc. For some time, I let the music speak for itself while I, as a vocal human being, remained in hiding. Over the years and because other people gave me the courage to do so, I revealed myself through my voice more and more, to the point even of developing a real fascination for vocal music. Now that my voice can be heard distinctively, I have this desire for a greater precision in the words I use. Now I want to be satisfied with every single sentence I put down on paper whereas before I was ok with finding only three quarters of a song’s lyrics satisfying. It helps also that my English got better with the years and that I have more and more confidence in the grammatical form of what I write. Recently, and for the first time ever, I re-wrote entirely a song I was not happy with.
8 ) how important is it for you to share your creation with others? how do you impact / interact with their comments, criticism, opinions?
Oh it is really important to me. I don’t necessarily think that a song needs to be shared to have a meaning but sharing it definitely gives it a larger life, project it into another dimension. And there is the sharing with an audience, but also the sharing with other musicians. I’ve always thought that one of the best things about making music was getting to know other musicians. At the beginning, I relied a lot on the comments of my peers. They were like a mirror, I needed them to tell me what I was worth as a songwriter. What I got at the time was tremendous support and encouragements. I didn’t receive many negative comments although I can remember most of those I did receive very vividly. I was ten years younger then and those criticisms were often voiced by older and more experienced men who were telling me how better it was to do things this or that way, how this or that song should be. I am sure they only had good intentions and retrospectively not everything they said was completely off the mark, but I don’t think they realised how authoritative their advices sounded to the ears of a timid 19 year old woman. I wished they had the humility to insist that this was only their opinion and reflected only their personal musical tastes so that I could feel a dialogue was possible. But their comments felt patronizing, they just made me angry and so I dug my heels in. I was perhaps not ready for a dialogue at the time though. But ultimately, I am glad I did not really listen to any of them, especially after I realised that I, in fact, did not share their vision or understanding of music. I am terrified of conflicts as a rule and have a tendency to surround myself with kind-hearted people who I know will adapt to my non-confrontational personality. That’s just how it works for me, I don’t respond well to being antagonised, it just crushes me. I need support, encouragement, inspiration, that’s what will make me a better songwriter. If I want someone’s honest opinion, I know I can ask friends and musicians whose tastes I share and whose thoughtfulness I trust.
Negative comments from reviewers or strangers on the internet hurt too. But you learn to get past them. Obviously some criticisms are more hurtful than others. I am, for instance, really ok with people saying I can’t sing (which is partly true and I never pretended I could) or that they don’t like my voice. At the other end of the spectrum, the most upsetting situation would probably be when someone invalidates in one second all I am trying to say and do by calling it “whining”. Making music means exposing yourself and when someone takes that vulnerability to, basically, laugh at it, it always feels like a violent blow. This just makes you want to close up and never expose yourself again. We all want to mean something and music is the way I’ve found to achieve that, especially in my own eyes. But we’re also all yearning for connexions. I want people to connect with what I do and with who I am. If someone tells me he can’t find any ways to connect with my music, that’s fine. One reviewer wrote a couple of years ago that it was just too consistently dark for him, so much so that it felt sterile. I actually get that. There are different kinds of sensibilities and some don’t thrive or find meaning in darkness. It is something else entirely when someone shames you for attempting to communicate and tells you to crawl back to your hole. In fact, that’s how you silence whole groups of people, by making them believe they have nothing valuable to contribute to the world. Then those with the loudest voices have free reign to impose their idea of what is worthy of expression and what is not, until everyone starts to believe that these hierarchies are natural facts. I am so glad that music is so imperative to me that I am forced to push back, even if it is only at my own little level. I realise that the intimate mystical ramblings of a morose 29-year-old white European middle-class female is not something everybody is interested in hearing. And I certainly don’t believe that what I have to say is more important or relevant than what others have to say. On the contrary, I still often struggle with the thought of my own insignificance, as I think many people do. But now and again, someone comes to me and tells me they have been deeply moved with what they’ve heard, and this is enough for me to know that it is all worth it: that I am worth it, but also that making music is worth it and that people are worth it.
9) what is your relationship with your past creations?
They’re like old photographs. From time to time I take them out of the drawer and have a look at them. They’re always a bit faded and seem familiar and strange at the same time. They will always remind me of other chapters of my life, of this other person that was me then. Maybe I’ll miss that person and those who were around her at the time, maybe my chest will swell with pride for who she was or what she did, or maybe I’ll just think she wore ridiculous pants.
10) what is the easiest and the most difficult part of creating for you?
The most difficult part is to finish off what I’ve started. And to find time and energy to do so. The easiest part is to start something new.