French-born multidisciplinary musician Emilie Simon laces operatic-like vocals through intricate compositions. Ever experimenting, the 31-year-old composer has been churning out energetic, genre-bending work since her self-titled debut in 2003. September will see the release of her latest LP, The Big Machine.
At the last stop on her West Coast tour, Simon sat down for tea and strawberries with Flavorpill LA’s Jane McCarthy to talk about the differences between New York and Paris, her rules for doing covers, and the key to staying sane.
Flavorpill: You’re touring now, performing songs from your forthcoming album, The Big Machine. What’s it like and how does it compare to what you’ve done previously?
Emilie Simon: I wrote and produced the album mainly in New York. I moved to New York a year and a half ago, and it’s a lot inspired by the energy I got in the city. It’s different from the other albums — for the first time I experimented with my songs live, before they were finished. So there was this fresh energy. With the other albums, I was working at home, finishing the process, releasing, and only then playing.
FP: Would the songs change after you performed them?
ES: Yeah. A song would change slightly, like I could feel if it was a good shape the way it was. Or for example, I would decide maybe I don’t need this extra part. You can see where you want to stretch something also. And some songs I just didn’t feel like playing. Those songs naturally didn’t go on the album.
FP: What spurred you to move to New York?
ES: In the beginning, I went on vacation. I wanted to have a little bit of time because I had done a lot of albums in a row, and I’d just finished a big tour after the last album. So at the end of the tour, I thought, okay I’m going to just go to Montreal for a bit, and then I flew to New York, and I stayed a few weeks, and then a few months, and then I felt, I really like it here.
FP: How does New York differ from Paris?
ES: It was different for me because what is interesting and rich is to change your culture, to go somewhere where you are not used to the codes, where you are not used to the places and the language, where everything is new and you have to adapt. Because then you become super alive. Every minute you are trying to understand something. You are not passive at all.
FP: You have to be very alert.
ES: Exactly. And you have to ask yourself, what am I doing here? What is my place here? What do I want? And so you have all these questions about, what do I want in my life now? You know, all of the things that are very positive for your evolution, and also for the writing because you are going inside a lot.
FP: So the new music was inspired by the city, and it must be different because you were doing a lot with sounds from nature before.
ES: Yeah. I wanted to change a little bit the way of working. I worked a lot around the idea of base, drums, and melodies as the center of the production. My programmings are still very important but they are more minimal. There is less layering in my music than there was. Still, this album’s not minimal when you listen to it. The way I produced it, there are fewer details but with a lot of character.
FP: In the past, you’ve likened the production process to sewing, weaving a song together. Is it easy to know when there are enough threads?
ES: It’s not easy to know… I always want more because I always have other ideas coming. Most of the time, in the past, I’ve just gone for it, but now I stop myself a little bit. I wanted to make sure not to lose the big lines because of too many details.
FP: Were you listening to different music alongside these changes to your work?
ES: I was listening actually to very random music. I was not really listening to a lot of CDs but more like what I heard in the city. I was seeing a show or listening to music in bars. New York City is full of good music. I was sort of absorbing the global feeling in the air.
FP: You’ve done some great covers. “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, for instance, is marvelous. Are you still interested in doing covers? If so, how do you choose what it is you’ll do?
ES: I’m interested. But I never know really what I will cover. It’s having a really special relationship with the song, and it’s never to do it the same way as the original. So it’s more like, do you have something to add? Do you have another lighting on that song?
FP: Do you think there are certain songs no one should ever cover?
ES: No. No, I think it just depends on what you’re doing and if you’re doing it with creativity, and respect, and with fun. Once the song is out there, it’s great that it has another life, that people sing it, change it. It keeps the song alive. So it’s not in a museum. Though the original version will always be there and will always be the reference for everybody. But of course, the main thing for me is to write my own songs. And when I cover something, it’s more like a little “blink”, is that how you say it? Like a little reference? A little homage.
FP: You composed the soundtrack for the original version of March of the Penguins (released everywhere outside of the US and UK). Would you do a soundtrack again?
ES: Why not! I loved it. It was very, very special. It was the first time I’d worked on a movie, and it was the first movie for the director, and the first for the producers. So I don’t think we did it in a very conventional way. I wrote the music while they were editing the movie. I didn’t write from the final cut. It was a very specific experience, and I’m sure if I were to do another movie, it would be completely different. But I would love to do another one. I just put so much energy into each project, it really has to fit with what I want to do, because I really dig in. I cannot do things halfway.
FP: When you’re in a project, when do you work? For instance do you prefer night to day?
ES: I work when I feel like working and most of the time it’s a lot. I don’t especially prefer the night or the daytime. I try to keep some balance, you know, so I don’t go crazy working all night long. I try to stay sane. But I work when I feel inspired and you never know when you’re going to feel inspired. So it’s not me who chooses, really.
FP: You’ve described your music as hybrid. It’s hard to pin down. What is it about lots of different kinds of sounds that excites you?
ES: I feel like when you understand how something works, you want to try something else. That’s how I am. I’m curious. For example, a rock band kind of has rules. You have a base, a drum, a piano, guitar — it works. But I really enjoy playing with the role of everybody. That’s why I like bringing electronics into the music, because it’s not organic, and you have to make it fit in order for it to have a natural feel. Also, I like to play around and introduce surprises. If I’m going to play a song two hundred times, I want to have fun when I play the change, and just think, I like that. To enjoy it each time.
FP: Your live performances are quite theatrical and also the music videos for your songs tend to be very elaborate. How do you come up with visual concepts to represent the songs?
ES: When I write music, I have pictures in mind. Or colors. And I also dream about the songs. So it happens very often that I have a story coming with the song… it can start with just colors and a place, and then in my mind it’s going to change and start meaning something I can make a story out of. I try to express with my clothes or my videos or my pictures the creative things I have in mind when I write a song.
FP: The story or dream is what you then do for the video?
ES: Yeah. Then I work with directors who are on the same page so we can go further together. It’s not going to be his vision or my vision. I give him what I have in mind and then we see if we can create something bigger together.
ES: Well, I don’t know exactly. But it’s good to have different layers, different levels of comprehension. To me, creepy can also be beautiful.
Note: If in New York, check out Emilie Simon’s show at the Highline Ballroom on July 23rd.