Colleen – The Sheer Joy Of Doing Something New

I don’t see myself as the performer being remote from the audience, but rather that we’re all together in a room and I happen to be the one making something for others to watch and listen to‘ – Siobhán Kane talks to Cécile Schott, aka Colleen, who plays the Unitarian Church this Friday with Seti The First.

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Some years ago the musician Colleen (Cécile Schott) moved to San Sebastián, and took a sabbatical of sorts from music. Up to that moment she had created such work as 2003’s Everyone Alive Wants Answers, The Golden Morning Breaks (2005), the beautifully rendered Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique (2006), and Les Ondes Silencieuses (2007), but then a kind of silence entered her world.

It is perhaps only because of this period of silence and reflection that this year’s The Weighing of the Heart could emerge; a finely-wrought collection of compositions that radiate a deeper kind of joy that is set within a loose, warm atmosphere. It seems fitting that Schott’s’s voice makes its debut here, rising out of the waves of music, like a disoriented mermaid, meditating on nature; that within us, and that all around us.

In his 1931 collection of essays Music at Night, and the essay The Rest is Silence, Aldous Huxley wrote, “after silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music“, this is something Schott knows well, and it has emboldened her, she tells Siobhán Kane.

The Weighing of the Heart is your first record in a number of years. There seems to have been many changes, as well as a withdrawing of sorts that seemed very necessary for you as a musician. Can you expand a little on this last period in your life, how things have been, and perhaps how your relationship to making and listening to music has changed?
My life went into a spiral of being eternally busy and I realised that even though the neverending list of things I had to do was connected with my music-making, it was turning into something unfulfilling and unhealthy psychologically and physically. It’s easier to stop altogether than to slow down, so that’s what I did. I do believe that life works in cycles and that it’s best to accept it rather than fight it. I also realise now that change is a constant, and again it’s best to try and embrace it. I tried to accept my lack of inspiration as being a sort of hibernation, and I do think that’s what it was. I’m deeply happy about being in love with music and making music again, but I’m very aware that what happened to me before, as far as being exhausted by the non-musical aspects of being a musician, could happen to me again, so I hope that I’m going to be able to navigate these waters with a bit more calm and strength than in the past. Thankfully I’m feeling really creative, and that does help a lot.

This is your first record for Second Language, how did this relationship come about? It feels like a distinctively new beginning, it must be quite freeing in a way?
Both my boyfriend, illustrator Iker Spozio – who has been doing all my artwork since 2004 – and myself are friends with Mark Fry, the painter and musician. Mark released his last album on Second Language, and in addition to that, Iker himself has known Glen Johnson – head of the label – for many years through ordering records of his first label, Tugboat. For me it’s definitely a mixture of the human element and the more prosaic quest for a label that would leave me in control of the rights to my records, as opposed to a more traditional label that always keeps the master rights for a certain amount of time. I’ve learnt a lot about the music business in the past ten years, it’s a tough world, and I’m not ready to accept all that’s in it just because I’m supposed to – I do think it’s worth trying to do things in a different way.

You were asked to write an essay on Moondog 2 for the Artists on Album series, and explain why that particular record meant so much to you. What it is about him and that particular record that influenced your new record so much?
I particularly relate to musicians working outside of genres or scenes, because that’s how I feel about what I do, and as I grow older I also find comfort in knowing that musicians – and artists from other fields – managed to remain creative for decades on end. This is definitely the case for Moondog and is part of the reason why I find his work so interesting. As for Moondog 2, it’s a pefect balance of rhythm, melody and lyrics, which is what I tried to achieve somehow in my own album.

Moondog was such an interesting composer, and I see a real kinship between the work you create and his work – it seems to stem from a similar impulse – and also, your own fascination with different compositional processes – from ancient to modern. You began experimenting on the ACID Pro and then there was your beautiful record with music boxes, and you are always exploring the limitations or non-limitations with instruments and composition. With Moondog, even though he was writing some of his best work in the 1950’s it still seems like he might have been making this music in the 1850’s, or even forward to 2050. There is an ethereal, timeless quality – what are your thoughts?
Couldn’t agree more about what you say about Moondog’s timeless quality, and to me it’s the mark of any great art. That doesn’t mean that the art can’t bear the mark of its own time, but rather than even though it may be completely a product of its time, it’s timeless because of the quality of the feeling that went into it and the craftsmanship. I recently watched many silent films from the ’20s and ’30s and couldn’t believe how modern they were, in fact more modern and certainly taking way more risks, even formally, than contemporary film-making.

In your essay on Moondog 2, you say that its beauty renders your own ideal: “the coexistence of instruments and voices, rhythm and melody, a close yet richly layered sound coming from all angles of the stereo spectrum, and a sense of experimentation combined with playfulness” – and it struck me that this is the first record where you use your voice – did it feel like you had found the other piece of the jigsaw puzzle, or did you feel your other works were complete in your own way?
I’ve never felt nor will I ever feel that my previous records somehow needed the voice. I do think they’re the exact result of what I managed to do at a given time within the framework of what I was trying to achieve. And the fact that I’m singing and using lyrics now doesn’t at all mean that I think music with singing and words is somehow superior or more complete than instrumental music. Even the dichotomy itself seems a bit sterile to me: the voice is an instrument anyway. And if you look at the greatest composers, to name just two – Bach and Mozart, they were equally astounding in both instrumental and sung music, and there’s no reason to feel that one is better than the other. But when I started to get over my creative block in early 2010, it was clear I wanted to sing and use lyrics, and I think it’s just a matter of the time being right for that desire to come up and be fulfilled.

I was also thinking about Moondog’s love of rhythm, and you have never been sure you had a natural gift for it, that perhaps it was a language that didn’t come as easy to you – yet your new record explores it even more fully than previous records.
Learning percussion, even at the very small beginner level that I am at, has been tremendous fun and has been so ear-opening for all my playing, I couldn’t have played my violas the way I play them now without delving into this new world of rhythm, and as with singing, I hope it’s just the beginning!

What has your relationship been like towards your own voice, does singing come very naturally to you?
I’m not a natural born singer at all, I did struggle for a year and a half before finally starting to sing with my real voice and not the “hushed” voice I was initially using. It was a kind of inner revelation in the sense that I confronted some of my fears about not being good enough to do it: with the voice, I feel like I’m discarding the “clothes” of instruments, and I’m somehow naked. It’s only now, after 3 months of rehearsing for the live shows, that I’m starting to feel that singing is as natural as breathing, and hopefully this is the start of a long time of using my voice as another one of the instruments at my disposal.

I often think of your work as being sympathetic to so many other forms; dance, literature – and you collaborated with choreographer and dancer Perrine Valli a few years ago, how was that experience?
It was a really great experience, but I must say that in general, I’m not into collaborations or commissions – there’s something in me that has trouble giving the very best for projects that are not my albums, because I only want the very best of my work to be out in the world, not the average stuff. And when I do something really good, my first thought is that it should be on a future album so that as many people as possible can enjoy it!

There always seems to be a philosophical reimagining with your work – for example, you using the viola, tuning it like a guitar, is a way of rendering previous expectations/long-held beliefs about that instrument and its capabilities – and this can be transposed in a more philosophical context and about the capacity of the human condition to do so much more than ever thought possible – what are your thoughts?
That’s a really beautiful way of looking at it, and I share your view completely – yes, it’s absolutely amazing what one can do with passion and dedication. Learning is the greatest joy in my life, and maybe each one of my albums is different from the previous one not just for artistic reasons, but just out of the sheer joy of doing something new. As for retuning to the treble viola da gamba, I was so happy about that, not just because of the musical perspectives it opened, but also because the viola had been lying there virtually unused for more than 3 years, and I was feeling really guilty about it, calling myself stupid for having it made by the luthier that had done my previous viola and then not using it. When I retuned to it, all of a sudden it made sense, and I saw it as proof that in life, many things that may seem wasted are just waiting for the right moment to come into their own.

When you shape and reshape a sound or capacity of an instrument, it seems like you are often meditating on an idea, and only by whittling it to its barest bones can you realise the truth. Who else do you really love musically, that inspires you on in this vein?
Well I’m just going to repeat myself here but Moondog and Arthur Russell are two great examples, but there are many others of course. Coltrane also really inspired me, perhaps not so much musically as just as humanly. I read a brilliant biography and was in awe of how everyone described him as a person and how dedicated he was to what he was doing. I’m nowhere near his level of commitment, but someone like that is definitely an example I look up to.

When you were on a kind of hiatus from music, you were studying sculpture and ceramics, again, it is about shaping and reshaping images and objects and ideas, have these processes helped you greatly as a musician?
Yes, it helped me in two ways. First of all, as you say, the parallels between arts are fascinating: even though I was just learning the basic stuff, I could see that somehow, my artistic sensibility was trying to express itself in the choice of colours, shapes, finishes, etc, in ceramics, and to me the parallels with melodies, choice of instrument and production choices are really obvious. The second way in which it helped was that it put me in a context where people work in workshops, and when they’re making ceramics or sculpting, they’re not checking their emails: it seems so basic, and yet that is indeed the condition for creating at a sustained level, you need dedication to the creation itself and to push away the rest as much as you can. Easier said than done once you’re back into releasing records, but at least now I really know what I’m striving for.

When you wrote that piece of work about why you have been silent for so long – “A long account of why I have been silent”, it was very touching because it was unusual in its honesty, did it come to you impulsively to write such a thing, or had you been meaning to do it for some time? And did it feel cathartic to write such things down? What was the response like?
Before writing it, I kept getting messages from people wanting to know when I would have a new album out, and I was still receiving live offers to which I always replied “no, I’m working on a new album but it’s slow because I’m trying new things”; so it really made sense to explain clearly what had happened to me to these people, and I also felt the urge to do it because I knew I wasn’t the only one in this situation, and wondered why so few talked about it. The reaction I got confirmed my feelings: many people wrote back to actually thank me, as they had recognised themselves in what I had written. It of course made me feel better to have the confirmation that what I was going through was somehow natural and normal, and gave me further hope for the future.

For me, the sea is a very important image and presence, perhaps it is because it is so elemental, ever-fascinating, and so much of your work reminds me of that image, in a way. Does the image of the sea and its depths inform your work?
I am literally in love with living by the sea. I lived inland for the greatest part of my life, except 6 months in Liverpool back in 1998, and there I had loved the feeling of open space that comes from being close to the sea. To me real luxury is this sort of thing – living somewhere where the gift of nature is present, because I don’t think you can tire from it- especially when it’s something as constantly changing as the sea. And in general, I’d say that seeing natural elements every day is a really good way of trying to put things into perspective when they go wrong: walking by the sea doesn’t of course solve my problems, but it makes me feel less worried and calmer, and that in itself is worth a lot.

Do you feel that your new record is about trying to hold on to joy? So much of life is about holding on to loss, not letting go of things that have ultimately brought you pain.
With the passing of time, I’m definitely more and more attracted to light, warmth and colours, in absolutely every sense: a warmer climate, being outdoors more, trying to surround myself with colours, and that now extends to my artistic preferences. I think the new album reflects that and I do think it’s a huge contrast with the previous one. I see this as fitting with the fact that indeed I’m trying in my every day life to savour the little joys, because no one on earth can hope to escape the harder stuff, so I think any opportunity to feel happier is worth seizing!

How are you feeling about the live aspect of your music? You haven’t been back to Ireland in some time, and the last time it was very moving. Do you find that you get lost when performing live, that sometimes it is overwhelming?
Thanks so much for your kind words! I’m extremely excited about playing live again. To me it’s really about meeting the audience, I don’t see myself as the performer being remote from the audience, but rather that we’re all together in a room and I happen to be the one making something for others to watch and listen to, but it’s really about the human aspect and its intersection with the artistic aspect. And yes, I do get lost sometimes, though it’s best for me not to get too lost, considering all the stuff I have to control during the live show !

The title of your new record comes from The Egyptian Book of the Dead, and it is a title that resonates quite deeply, as does the record, it seems like a yearning for a more innocent time, a childlike state, before heavier preoccupations; heartbreak, grief, anxiety, start to present themselves. This record is contemplative, hopeful – making people feel less alone, somehow. What are your thoughts on the title, and the more philosophical/emotional context?
That’s such a nice thing for you to say about the record. In general I’ve always been struck by how my music seems to have helped people going through intense emotional grief, be it the death of a loved one, an illness or any recovery from a hard event. Over the years I’ve received many emails from people telling me that. For me, at my age right now – 37, I do feel like my perspective on life is changing as each year adds a bit of “baggage”: some of it is painful, while thankfully some of it is hopeful, but yes, I too can see my childhood self and my teenage self as somehow distinct yet connected entities to what I am now, and it sometimes feels strange to actually even feel that. I wouldn’t call it nostalgia, but there’s definitely this sense that these things really are never coming back, and I don’t think I had quite realised it until recently.

The weighing of the heart ceremony is something that I see as a sort of mirror or echo of my own efforts in life to try and just be a good person and do the right thing, which I think is basically what the weighing of the heart ceremony represented in the Egyptian vision of life – I’m probably simplifying of course – hopefully not too grossly, but at least that’s how I read it, and it’s certainly a wonderful metaphor.

What are you listening to, watching, reading at present?
I’m crazily in love with African music and Jamaican music from the’60s-’70s right now – entire continents of music to explore, it really is just incredible how music is this bottomless well of nuggets! I also watched quite a lot of silent movies recently, and was extremely struck by Viktor Sjostrom’s The Phantom Carriage. As for literature, since I started recording the album in November, I unfortunately haven’t had the time to read fiction, but I’ve been studying the Collins Bird Guide, and two books on sound engineering and mixing – a really nice combination!

Do you feel your relationship to music is more hopeful again, and your relationship to life in general? It is brave to break everything down to begin again, whereas so many people just keep going with broken things, because they are too frightened to change them. But this change was a stimulus for you that helped this record to be in the world.
Well, I’m not particularly “brave”, I just got stuck in a situation and had to unstuck myself! My relationship to music is definitely very hopeful right now, and I actually feel like I’ve started all over again, which after making music for 22 years is a great feeling! I know quite clearly what I want to do with the next record, so that also feels incredible. As for life, well, no-one knows what the future is made of, but it certainly feels great to come out of a prolonged period of isolation and silence and finally be able to share some music with people to whom it can bring joy, and I feel very privileged to be in this position again!

Colleen plays the Unitarian Church with Seti The First this Friday, 31st May. Tickets are €12 from lecool.com.

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