Nine Songs: Sébastien Tellier
Perhaps it’s always a little unnerving to video call someone you’ve never met. It’s especially unnerving when that someone is Sébastien Tellier.
This is, after all, a man who once arrived on stage to represent France at the Eurovision Song Contest in a golf caddy with an inflatable globe in hand. A man who instructed those listening to his debut record L'incroyable Vérité to do so “alone and by candlelight”. A man who wears passion and sensuality as comfortably as his characteristic suits and sunglasses. A man with the hirsute and sartorial flair of a dandy from out of space, as encapsulated by the new Chanel Eyewear campaign he stars in.
And yet there I am, looking blankly and somewhat disappointedly at my own face as Tellier turns his camera off, relaxes into a chair in his Parisian home and talks about domesticated life. “It's a big surprise for me, because I have found a kind of happiness through being domesticated. I am more happy than ever, because there are rules in my life. I have a lot of straight pleasure, like when the windows are dirty, I can clean them and afterwards I am happy. It's not like, ‘Oh, what kind of artist am I?’, always thinking about myself or who I am. It was really difficult to be in that state of mind, and now it's totally different.
"It's ‘Oh, there is a piece of bread on the table. OK, I clean it.’ All of this gives me a reason for my life. It's not too much partying and then feeling sad afterwards, because of too much drugs and alcohol. I'm not totally straight, because I still love to smoke big joints and I love vodka. But it's less than before.”
As I soon learn, Tellier’s sensuality and flamboyance manifest themselves in his language just as vividly as through his image. This new chapter of his life frames the concept of his new record, Domesticated, and on mention of one of its singles, “Domesticated Tasks”, Tellier drops into a kind of surrealist stream of consciousness, and as with the way he explains many of his Nine Songs selections, he combines sound and words to bring his answers to life.
“At first, it's hard, it's boom boom boom! And then it’s the spaceship and kids, but step by step it's harder and harder, it's too much, its aaaaaaah, but, if you do your homework, it's dug dug dug, dugdugdugdug, dooooo. I'm very proud of this one. It's a good painting of my state of mind in front of domestic tasks.”
The album’s title came from filmmaker Sofia Coppola, his friend and collaborator, who after hearing him describe the record at a party, looked him dead in the eyes and said, “Domesticated.” “It's perfect,” he says. “A kind of conclusion of my concept. Domesticated means your family life, but at the same time says that before you were a savage, a kind of beast, and now you are not. It's a name with a double sense. It's an album about family life but it's also an album about my own way of life. Because it's true; before I was a wolf, a savage, and now I am domesticated by the family, the kids and by life.
“It's a way to talk with people about how happiness can be everywhere. You have to find your own happiness and usually the happiness for human beings is hidden; you have to find it. For me, I found it in the domesticated life. So it's a positive message, not,'Ah, I'm a slave!' Well, yes I'm a slave, but I'm happy.”
His first studio record since 2014s L'Aventura, Domesticated’s concept demanded an approach to recording at odds and “upside down” with his previous processes. Returning to CBE, a recording studio in Paris that he swears by, Tellier began with just his voice. “Most important was the melody, to reach a very special kind of melody. The star of the album is my voice and the melody. Then I worked with the producer to create the music around the voice, so it was totally the opposite of my previous process, and the opposite of the general production process, because now we live with music that is driven by producers: you find a loop, and then you find a melody, la la la.
“I chose to do the opposite and to first have a strong melody and then after all that, the rest. It was a big adventure and it was great, because it's not just producing boom boom boom! It was to create a little island for the voice.”
Throughout the record the 45-year-old’s voice floats and hangs in falsetto like a cloud above the synth-heavy production below, and though at times it droops down with the weight of vocoder, the overall effect is very zen. “Mmmm, it's tranquil,” he agrees. “And that's the message I want to give to the audience. Now I'm a sweet person, not a savage. I do sweet music, full of colours and full of dreams.”
Tellier describes his Nine Songs with as much poetry - and, of course, lots of sound effects - as his own material, as if he’s listening to or even performing each song again as he describes it. His song choices tell a story of his life, reflecting some of his earliest memories and some of his most intimate, offering a glimpse into this unique figure’s artistic development.
“Jeanette is a Spanish singer and she released this song one year before my birth in '74. So for me, my first musical memory is "Porque Te Vas".
"I remember my parents had an orange car, in French it's called a Coccinelle, a Volkswagen car; maybe in English you call it a Bug? I don't know. But it was a very cute car, and I remember this song, ‘Da da da da da dee da da daa da' in the car. I think it's the very first memory of mine, so it's the basement of my musical world. The name of my daughter, who's three now, is Jeannette. So it's very important to me.
“I'm always jealous of the sound of the high-hat, you know, the drum? Tssta tssssssta! It's a high-hat but you can hear it like a snake? Tssssta tssssssta! When I go to the studio to do a beat, I always ask the engineer or producer, 'Could you reach the sound of this?’ Tssta tssssssta!’ And it's always the same, ‘It's impossible!’ So at the same time it's a painful song, because I'm jealous of this high-hat.
“When I was young, I didn't understand the lyrics at all. It's melancholic, you know, but at the same time it's happy, like the brass: Boom dan dan danannn. So it's like life, it's sad and happy at the same time.
“Life is so blurred, and even with one of my songs like "La Ritournelle" I really try to reach this state of mind. It's not dance, it's not wuh wuh wuh, it's something in between. Like life. Bah, it's a really big hit in France, so if you are in the car for a few hours you will hear it for sure. I don't play it at my place at home, I don't have the record, but I can hear it at the supermarket or... oui.”
“Electronic music is a kind of magic. When I was younger, I grew up in a suburb of Paris; I am not a real Parisienne, I'm a guy from the suburbs. So to come from my suburb to go to Paris I had to pass through La Défense, a big business part of the city. I remember, in the ‘80s, very modern buildings, super high, with the music from Jean-Michel Jarre: Doo bo de ba ho.
"Ah, it was magic! Because a car was not a car anymore, it was a spaceship. Woaaah! Super modern buildings! Super modern electronic music in the car going into Paris, a lot of lights everywhere. Woaaah!
“So this song from Jean-Michel Jarre is a very good memory of music for me. Bah, I'm sure it was my first love of electronic music, because it was magic. I love the sound of the kick: boom boom. Everything is super hot, super round. Usually we have a vision of electronic music as cold or hard, but this is super soft, super warm. It's touched me a lot and still now it's a big, big influence on me, and very important in my global vision of music.
“This guy is just following his art and his own sensations, and maybe sometimes doesn't give the best image, but he doesn't care. This guy is super nice, super intelligent and it was fantastic, because when I was producing my album L'Aventura he gave me the keys to his studio. It's the biggest collection of synths ever. All of the best synths are there, it's fantastique, and everything is working.
“It was a dream, so I spent maybe one week in the studio to record all of the keyboards. It was very nice of him to do that, because it is very precious, blah blah blah. But he just gave me the key and said to me 'Do what you want to do and use everything.'
“He lives in this fantastic part of Paris, in a fantastic apartment, it's huge! But there is nothing inside. There is nothing inside the apartment. Just a few things: a little Christmas tree, you know, very cute, but that's it. This guy lives for music, he lives for the synth in general.”
“When I heard “The Cold Song” it was the first time I said to myself, 'Ah, OK I can be afraid by the music'. Because when I saw this guy on TV - I did watch a lot of TV, because I'm a guy from the suburbs always in front of the TV, bof – when I saw this guy with the super white skin singing this song, I was Oh, oh ohh OH OHH.
“I was totally afraid in front of the TV, like ‘Ah he's the devil! A monster! A vampire maybe', I don't know. And so, for me it was the first stage to realise ‘OK the music is not just positive, it can be negative or talk about negative vibes or to create a bad feeling, even if the song is a beauty.’ I mean I love the song of course, but I was afraid.
“This feeling, to be afraid in front of music, I later found in death metal bands like Sepultura. You know, woaaaah, bumbumbum, woaaah. If you listen to my first record, L'incroyable Vérité, there are a few scary parts, you can hear a lady screaming, like AAAAGHHH. There is very dark music. Dun, dun.
“Klaus Nomi gave me this love for the dark music. But after, step-by-step I tried to erase that from my music, because I prefer to just give pleasure and smile, blah blah blah. But this song was really important in my artistic process and in my life, because I remember very well when this guy came out on a very important French TV show, singing this song and I was super afraid, alone in the living room. It was a deep moment for me.”
“This was my first 45" record, and so I remember dancing in my room with this song. It was energetic and a tonic and fresh, "Street Dance" is a super fresh song. Because, OK, maybe in the U.S. there was already rap blah blah, toobe doobe, e toobe dobee, but in France it was the first funk rap music, I never heard that before this song, like, oui woo woo *whistles*.
“When I put the record on, my bedroom was a dance floor, in the style of the guy, you know in the sportswear? The red outfit? So cool. It's still very powerful, very energising, very efficient.”
“This one is more of a story about a tempo. For me, "Moments Of Love" has the perfect tempo - Dun dun dun dun, dah dah dah dah. Something happens between my own heart. This song matches perfectly with my heart, you know? The perfect tempo.
“I do a lot of music with this same tempo. Oooommm. Music that gives me the need to... to do Aaaaah… Mmmmm… It's sexual, it's perfect timing to have sex, to be lazy and sensual.
“I discovered this song when I was around 20, or something like that, and for me it was so sexual and so intense. That's the perfect sexual song for me. Everything is in the title of the song - “Moments of Love”. Still now when I listen to this song, even now it's a caress. It feels like someone is giving me caress. For me it's a masterpiece.”
“When you asked me to choose these songs, I was thinking about my life, blah blah blah. I remembered when I was a teenager, and I was a ridiculous teenager, because I was half Guns N' Roses style, long hair one day, but the day after I was rap, baggy pants and baseball cap.
“I was a fan of rock but I was also a fan of Dre Dre and Snoop Dogg. I didn't choose my side. It was so ridiculous but in my mind, I was really a tough guy, you know? I listened to this music and I'm tough, but I was just a pépette. So, I picked this song because it reminds me of this ridiculous side of my teenage life. I was fragile and super influenceable.
“Snoop Dogg is in the video, and you feel what I was trying to mean. He was so young and trying to be tough and trying to be a man, but he’s still a boy, growing. But also of course a very talented and super powerful musician. It's a very solid song.”
“When I decided to do music and I had my first deal with my record company, I think it was around 1998? The artistic director of the record company played me this song on the third rendezvous, and it was so exciting. He showed me the video. Ohhhh. It was something new. It was my first step in the music business. I was not a specialist, so for me, it was a shock, like ohhhhh. It's beautiful, it's full of light, it’s a huge blue sky, but in a very complicated way.
“It's an easy way to analyse things, but Picasso, when he started to do super weird paintings, it was the same. Boom clah AH AH ah ahooo. What the shit happened? It's totally destroyed! But it's not destroyed, it's destroyed for the beauty. It's a goal, it's noble, almost royal. It was a big step in my artistic life, because it gave me the message that you can do super crazy music to create something noble.
“It was important for me to understand that - the structure of the songs, the shapes of the songs and that you don't care. What's important is the feeling of the songs. It was a big message of freedom. I took it like, 'Ey Sebastien, you can do what you want to do, just respect the audience and do something beautiful.' OK there is this goal, but to reach it, you can do what you want.
“I don't know him at all, I don't know his life or anything, but for me this guy is a kind of genius and I really, really, really respect him.”
“I think "Caramel" is my favourite song ever. I love to listen to this song so much. I can listen to it thousands and thousands of times. It's never enough, and the song is quite short, so when it's finished you need to play it again.
“For me it's the perfect translation of life - you don't understand where you are, it's beautiful of course, but it's complicated. I love the guitar in this song, for me it's the best guitar part ever. I mean - da da da da dadum dum dah dum dah dah. That reminds me of the best part of the summer, America movies when I was young, or good times with the kids. So many good things.
“I'm very jealous of this song, because he reaches exactly what I want to do. It's perfect! It's not difficult, you play it and enjoy it. I met him in Los Angeles and had the perfect style. Super dandy guy, smiling at the party, polite, haha. He's coming from space.”
“I was in love with Susanna Hoffs, the singer of The Bangles. I remember her in the video singing this song on the beach. I was in love!
“I wish to compose this kind of song. It took a huge space in my life, because I did my wedding to this song. It's important for us. And my son was born to this song, in the medical shit. The birth. “Eternal Flame”, the same for my daughter. Her birth was with “Eternal Flame” too. So, the wedding, and the birth of my kids.
“I see this song almost as my best friend, my buddy, I need it in my life. When something important happens in my life, I need this song. Sometimes journalists ask, 'Oh, what is the soundtrack of your life?' "Eternal Flame" is really the soundtrack of my life.”