Versatile, Spanish-based French musician Cécile Schott, aka Colleen, garnered legions of admirers and critical plaudits with a trio of post-millennial albums for the Leaf label which parlayed looped electronics, arcane instruments and minimalist chamber textures into an inimitably beguiling signature. After a hiatus of several years, Colleen is set to return with a new album, The Weighing of the Heart, and a new label, London’s Second Language. A solo artist in the truest sense, Cécile writes, plays, sings, records, produces and mixes everything on this strikingly original new record, with nary a hint of assistance. We asked Angèle David-Guillou to quiz her countrywoman about this self-sufficient working regimen and discuss more widely what it means to be a practicing independent female artist in what can still be a dauntingly patriarchal music industry.
As Colleen, Cécile Schott is known for her equally skilful mastery of the sampler and the Renaissance period proto cello, the viola de gamba, among many other things; a multi-instrumentalist who since her first masterpiece, 2003’s Everyone Alive Wants Answers, has woven her own distinctive but ever-changing sonic tapestry. Resolutely in charge of her recordings, from conception to final mix, Colleen’s albums are widely lauded and seem largely impervious to gender platitudes, standing instead as quiet victories for pure artistry over music biz stereotyping.
On her latest opus, the beguiling, vaguely African-tinged e Weighing of the Heart, Cécile sings for the first time, crucially, bringing to this pursuit the same measured, alluring yet primal quality, the same blend of honesty and craft , which hallmarks her instrumental oeuvre. There is something so absolutely uncompromising about Cécile’s music – she works diligently to create something genuinely novel, and she succeeds regularly, often magnificently. I am utterly mesmerised by her ability to create a sound world which is both sophisticated and contemplative while at the same time remaining subtle and pure, almost naked.
Angèle David-Guillou — Your work has never been easy to categorize. The new album offers a very particular blend of subtle influences, all of them woven into a musical architecture that is all your own. In general, do you think this unclassi able quality helps or hinders you as an artist?
Cécile Schott — I know I am very difficult to pigeonhole, especially given that every single one of my albums was made in a different way, using different instruments. I’m still sometimes referred to as ‘the music box musician’, which is ironic as I made an EP, originally for a radio commission, using only music boxes precisely because at the time , I was increasingly annoyed by how regularly my name was associated with music boxes when up to that point I’d only used one single music box on one single song! So I made the EP [Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique] using only music boxes, making sure I did very adventurous stuff with said devices; but the bulk of my work is the three albums that I’ve made using viola da gamba, cello, clarinet, classical guitar, and rare instruments such as a glass harmonicon and many others. Still, certain people insist on the music box reference.
ADG — Musically, The Weighing of the Heart is the furthest you’ve yet sailed from looped electronics. Sonically and stylistically, what did you set out to do with this album that was different from your earlier oeuvre?
CS — All my life I’ve listened to music that incorporates singing and rhythm, as well as lyrics, but I was so convinced I was incapable of all these things that I followed my natural instinct, which was to make instrumental music, something I felt entirely satisfied with until I hit an inspiration crisis.
When I realized that incorporating these elements was what I really wanted, I had to overcome my fear of failing and just get on with it, which of course took me a long time and was often very discouraging.
During the making of the album, I had some ‘key words’ written down on a large sheet of paper in order not to fall back into old habits and stay focused on the bigger picture. They were: colour / texture; voice / harmony; plucked strings / Africanisation; rhythm / percussion ornamentation. To achieve those goals I played instruments in ways in which they are not meant to be played; for example, tuning the treble viola differently, playing violas by plucking not bowing, heavily muffling the drums, exaggerating the vibrato on the clarinet and so on.
ADG — In what other ways did the recording process differ from past approaches?
CS— It’s the first album where I have recorded everything myself alone while trying to achieve a professional sound. I had recorded my second album [2005’s The Golden Morning Breaks] through my looping pedals, and [most recent album, 2007’s] Les Ondes Silencieuses had been mostly recorded by sound engineer, Emiliano Flores, so I’d never actually faced the task of trying to get a really good recording by myself.
The mixing was also a lot more complex than on my previous albums, as there are more layers and more stereo takes in this record; but I think the album really came alive during the mixing, as if the sounds were finally coming up to the surface and being assembled as in a puzzle.
ADG — Were there any direct musical influences on your writing or playing on this album?
CS — Arthur Russell and Moondog are two heroes of mine: their music is instrumentally very rich and inventive, with very personal sounds, but also incorporates the voice in a non-traditional manner with words that are closer to poetry than conventional song lyrics. There were other inspirations, like Brigitte Fontaine’s poetical and genre-defying lyrics, vocals and music; Stina Nordenstam’s wonderful lyrics and often bold production choices; PJ Harvey’s last two albums for their unconventional beauty; the most dream-like songs of Tim Buckley for their layered soundscapes… Bands and artists from the ’80s who were very inventive with their song-making were important, too, especially with regard to the use of the voice: [obtuse, ’80s Belgium art band] Kaa Antilope and Laurie Anderson’s early work, for example. Other than that, there were all kinds of traditional English music and its North American extensions, various types of African music and music from Central Asia, particularly from Kyrgyzstan, as well as early and medieval European music.
ADG — On a more general note, do you feel that making what could loosely be called ‘experimental’ music means you’re less readily categorized as ‘a female artist’? Especially in the French press, it seems male musicians are always ‘artists’ while female musicians are first and foremost women, or worse, girls; their artistic credentials seem to always be secondary to their gender.
CS — Until this new album, I didn’t sing, so that probably played a part in making my sex pretty irrelevant: I think that the voice is so linked to the person delivering the singing that, inevitably, our perception of the music becomes coloured by the singer’s gender.
When I was younger, I was drawn almost exclusively to music made by male musicians, and I even remember having a problem with female voices in general – something which I find hard to believe now! The only exception was PJ Harvey who actually really inspired me when I heard the demos for her album Dry when I was 17. I lived in a small provincial town and she was the first female musician of this kind I had heard. When she released the albums White Chalk and Let England Shake recently, I was absolutely thrilled to see how she’d pushed herself to make music differently to her previous output, doing what I think is the best work of her entire career, and it reinforced my decision to sing on my own record, something which for a long time really scared me.
In general, it was only during my late twenties and early thirties that I began to notice how many female musicians I loved and admired – all of them mavericks and free spirits in their own ways, and many of them true pioneers in their time: Delia Derbyshire, Brigitte Fontaine, Nico, Stina Nordenstam, Laurie Anderson, Shirley Collins, Anne Briggs, Violeta Parra… and a host of lesser-known musicians from the ’80s who sometimes only got the chance to make a couple of albums or cassettes; and, of course, all the wonderful, often unnamed female musicians one can hear on recordings of non-Western music on labels like Ocora.
There are also several pioneering women from other fields, such as the visual arts, particularly sculpture, design and textiles: Barbara Hepworth, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Gunta Stölzl, Charlotte Perriand… The example of these women from the first half of the twentieth century, from outside the world of music, leads me to this thought: the best way of advancing the ’cause’ of female musicians and female artists in general is, of course, to do what you do as best you can, but just as importantly to do it among men. What I mean by this is that sometimes I have been offered the chance to play in women-only festivals, and I just find the whole concept weird: are we so different from men that we want to play separated from them, as if we were a different species? Surely the best way of ‘proving’ that a female musician can be as good as a male musician is for all musicians to play in the same environment, which would eventually – hopefully – lead to the sensation that it’s normal and not extraordinary to see an excellent female musician. en we wouldn’t even need to comment that “hey, she is a woman.”
“ The best way of advancing the ‘cause” of female musicians and female artists in general is, of course, to do what
you do as best you can, but just as importantly, to do it among men.”
ADG — Have you ever felt undermined by people, men especially, as a musician, simply because you are a woman?
CS — I would say that, on the whole, I’ve always been treated first and foremost as a musician, and not specifically as a ‘female musician’. I think there may be a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, the fact that I operated entirely alone right from the beginning, without a producer or engineer, made it objectively undeniable that I was in complete charge of my music. I was always treated seriously as a musician. at said, I do think there’s a tendency in the discourse of journalists to describe my music using adjectives that, although not patronizing per se, indicate a tendency toward a certain ‘feminine filter’. I’m thinking of one adjective in particular: ‘childlike’. I’ve rarely seen it applied to male musicians’ work, but somehow it’s cropped up very often in reviews of my records, and I’m certainly not the only musician using instruments that are reminiscent of the world of childhood, such as glockenspiels, music boxes,etc. The recurrence of the ‘childlike’ adjective is all the more absurd when it gets applied to some of my work which was created in a totally different, non-childlike spirit, such as [most recent, maritime themed album] Les Ondes Silencieuses.
From the start, my music was catalogued, more or less, in the electronic/experimental genre, an arena in which there is probably more emphasis on the music itself and less on the musician making it than is the case in the ‘pop’ world. But it may be true that that being a woman in a field where there are few of them can actually help you get noticed – although I suppose that is technically a form of ‘sexism in reverse’…
— COLLEEN’S THE WEIGHING OF THE HEART IS RELEASED ON CD AND VINYL BY SECOND LANGUAGE ON MAY 13