Photos by Estudio Primo
Text by Paul Parreira
Assuming you know nothing about Colleen — the moniker used by French multi-instrumentalist Cecile Schott — you wouldn’t be scolded for thinking she’s just another electronic music artist. But if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll discover that she uses an acoustic instrument to create her sly mix of organic textures, pristine vocals and ambient sounds treated with effects, delays and other music processors. Most of what you hear on her record has been created with a treble viola da Gamba, a baroque instrument commonly heard in classical music. Played live then fed through multiple effects and treatments, Colleen’s music feels lost, in a good way. Much like the treated sounds on Aphex Twin’s records, where curious sounds give you the impression he is sampling, Colleen’s music is actually an instrument being plucked and played. On her latest release, Captain of None, her music is more accessible and immediate than past recordings. Her singing is more prominent and upfront in the mix, her lyrics a playful mix of exploratory and vague, her melodies often drifting and delicate. As a matter of fact, her singing feels like an instrument: at times narrative, but more often layered as a supporting element in the song. We spoke via Skype about her music and what influences it.
Of course it’s just me.
You were playing live in Portugal. How was that?
Very good! The show in Lisbon was the best I’ve given since the new album. I love Portugal, beautiful weather. I wish I was still there.
Where did you play in Lisbon?
I was playing at the Galeria dos Bois.
What is the performance set up for you live?
Well I have the viola da Gamba, which is what I use on the album; a chained set of various pedals, and they’re very flexible to move around. I sing and use some percussion. So it’s pretty straightforward but very flexible and fun.
So it’s just you?
Of course it’s just me.
Is that similar to how you recorded the album? Or do you collaborate with other musicians?
No its just me, 100% me from start to finish
Tell me about this instrument, the viola da Gamba. Why this instrument?
It’s a story in two acts….I’m not classically trained, I come from a pop background. I just picked up a guitar when I was 15 and that’s how I played for 7 years. I did see a French film, Tous Les Matins Du Monde, that’s the film that introduced the viola da Gamba to a non-classical audience. I was only 16 and didn’t have that much freedom to make up my mind to play something original as that instrument, and it wasn’t until 10 years later that I decided to get a viola made. You usually have to go find someone that can make it. So that’s what I did. So first I played the more traditional viola da Gamba, which is what you usually hear in baroque music. Then I got a smaller viola made, that’s the treble viola, which I play on the new album, which is different from what you would usually hear from the instrument. It’s usually tuned a bit lower than it should, my finger picking style and influences are varied so it really sounds nothing like a viola de Gamba–that’s how it happened.
I’m really surprised to hear you’re making all of those sounds with an acoustic instrument.
Most people assume it’s a classical guitar or a harp, but it’s not, it’s just that one instrument.
Is that the case with all your records? Your early ones sound very electronic, as though they were written on a synth.
Well I’ve never used purely electronic sounds, my first album I sampled other records, but sound sources were acoustic and I treated them in a way which lowers the border between what’s acoustic and what’s electronic. Then afterwards I started playing all different acoustic instruments, but yet I’ve always looped them and producing things that push the boundaries. People don’t usually know how to pigeonhole my music. They call it electronic but it’s not that electronic, it’s not purely acoustic either. The new album is the first one that I’m using just that instrument and pushing it to sound like a bass, some people assume it’s just a guitar or a harp but it’s not.
So it gives you a lot of options, a lot of flexibility. What about experimental? I find some of your music leans towards that genre.
The thing for me on this album, it’s very accessible because it has a lot of melodies. To me the melodies are pretty obvious on the album, you don’t need to be particularly interested in experimental to understand the melodies, but on the other hand I think I did push the more experimental aspects of sound. I did more on this album than on the previous ones. For me, I don’t have a problem building a fusion of melodic into an experimental territory.
I did hear bits of that on your previous records, but maybe a bit more succinct Captain of None. I was kind of surprised to hear just how accessible (“I’m Kin”) this record sounded, but also how experimental (“The Hammer Breaks”) it can be at times. What about your singing, is that something you’re comfortable with? You haven’t done much singing in the past.
Well, originally, I wasn’t singing at all, I’m a guitarist. Since I was a teenager I’ve been in love with the guitar and then when I started to do music on my own, it was pop. I didn’t really consider singing or getting another singer. I guess my taste was in instrumental music. There was a period when I was listening to different things but most of it would fall under electronica or hip-hop. And I also used to listen to music from the different continents like African, or Indonesian. I was feeling like I was missing a sound element, so I took a break from music and I came back refreshed. Then I realized I had listened to “song” music all my life and it was something I wanted to try. I also wanted to see what kind of lyrics I could write and if it would influence the way I make music. For me it’s not a distinction between a song on which I sing or I don’t sing, when I make it, the song will dictate whether it needs voices, and if I feel voices are needed I will add it, for me there is no clear separation between the two things. For instance I really admire someone like Arthur Russell, I don’t see a clear distinction between the instruments and elements when he sings, the singing is like another instrument,
Well yeah his disco stuff is a different beast from his “solo” cello and voice work, his solo records are incredible for the interplay between the voice and cello. It’s such a beautiful sound, also whenever he recorded you could feel the sound of the room, his bedroom or studio. So were you in bands before going solo? Did you play in bands and tour?
Just in high school, after that I made music just for myself, and it wasn’t until I was 27 when I recorded my first album. My music life has always been my solo career.
You’re French but living in Spain?
That’s right, yeah
Love, that’s the main reason I’m here. I lived in Paris and that was perfect, but as you age it becomes not so perfect, and you develop different needs and what you want in your life. I wasn’t comfortable in the city anymore and I craved the quiet environment where I could do my own music so I was craving a more natural environment. Moving out of Paris was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made
When you tour do you play just Europe? When are you coming to the States?
Well I haven’t been to the US since 2008, I have a tour next month which is the biggest thing I’ve ever done in terms of a solo show in the US. I’m very excited about it, and it has to do with the album being on sale in the US. There’s a huge difference with being on a European label, which doesn’t get much distribution in the US and being on a big US label. I would imagine I’ll be back, I have a visa now, so there’s nothing preventing me from coming back to the US if places will have me. Maybe it’s the start of many tours for years to come.
We hope so. The record is just lovely—I also picked up the previous record, The Weighing of the Heart, from 2013, that’s also a great record. I bought it after picking up the new record and I was pleasantly surprised at how nice it was and a bit mellow. I won’t say “ambient.”
It has links to the new one. It was my comeback album, very much wanting to incorporate many different things. I think it’s a lot more focused in a way. They’re different albums maybe for different listeners.