Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

Woodkid and the Celebration Of Sadness

18 March 2013, 13:37

We head to Berlin to meet visionary French director and musician Yoann Lemoine for a chat about the challenges of making his bold, conceptual debut.

In a strikingly austere modernist theatre in the Mitte district of Berlin, Yoann Lemoine stands triumphant onstage, arms outstretched messianicaly, egging on the adulations of a mid-week crowd. There’s near-hysteria in the auditorium for the man better known as Woodkid and it’s not difficult to see why.

Lemoine has earned acclaim and gongs (including a Cannes Lion) for his work with the likes of Lana Del Rey, Drake, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift but tonight finds the hirsute Frenchman fully transformed into a musical prodigy with a body of songs the equal of his video work and a show that transcends the everyday without ever becoming obtuse.

The child of advertising creatives, Lemoine was born in Lyon thirty years ago. After an education that took him from his native France to London – and covered everything from stop-motion animation to photography, collage and film – he followed his parents into the world of ads for a time before finding his feet as an in-demand videographer with style that immediately set him apart. In 2011, he stepped out from behind the camera to showcase his musical talent with the arresting ‘Iron‘, which introduced a sound that clashes baroque, anthemic orchestrals against a heavy beat-driven punch referencing warehouse raves and film soundtracks as much concert halls.

We’re in Berlin to talk with Lemoine about The Golden Age, his debut long-player which drops via Island this week. Three years in the making, it’s a magnificent multi-sensory opus with a coming-of-age concept that spreads beyond just the music – there’s an illustrated novella and massive live visuals that all carry a unifying poetic. The project is centred on the movement from adolescence to adulthood and the concept of that hallowed time when innocence reigns and we’re shielded from the war, corruption and horrors of the adult world.

Lemoine’s an ambitious soul. If he were ten years younger, the confidence and intellectual gusto that accompanies our conversation might seem arrogant or misplaced but there’s little doubt of the workmanlike skill that underlies his efforts across so many different mediums (not to mention their subsequent success). The Golden Age simply couldn’t have been made by someone in their late teens or early twenties; it’s a mature debut with emotional heft.

Woodkid, 2013, Babylon Berlin by Erik Weiss

BEST FIT: The Golden Age is an incredibly bold statement and I was wondering how you managed to work across several different mediums and still retain a sense of thematic unity.

YOANN LEMOINE: I work in very instinctive way. It’s like I do internal archaeology somehow, I dig for fragments of visions, sound textures, lyrical elements, moods, scenes and I stick them together like a puzzle. Sometimes I come up with ideas that are too influenced so I kill those fragments. I only keep the very honest ones. When I did ‘Iron‘ I had this aggression in me that was very genuine that I translated into this massive horn hook, half digital/half organic. Then I translated that back into a visual and then I found this texture of a meteorite, of black smoke that was a good translation of that horn sound. I don’t come up into a treatment on paper for the whole project, for every song.

It’s constantly evolving but the more I advance in the project, the more I know where I’m going. I now know what the next video is going to be about, I know how everything will fit together, I’ve known that since the ‘Run Boy Run‘ video but when I did ‘Iron’ I was still discovering the story as I was making it.

It’s a good process, it’s almost like psychoanalysis and I answered a lot of questions about my emotions and what I wanted to do in my life as an artist. It’s the opposite of screen-writing something and sticking to it.

You’ve mentioned the way that digital and organic appear in your work and it seems to be a reoccurring motif, especially in the way you create artificial images of real things, such as cities (as in the the ‘Run Boy Run’ video) and cathedral interiors.

It goes with the paradox inside of me, of small versus big, real versus fake, of being ‘cool’ versus being an artist and always trying to find a balance between that. When I came to this project the demos I had made, they were just pop songs and you could have made them on a minimal level. I didn’t want to produce it like that though. I wanted it to be pop music but didn’t want to use the instruments you associate with that – I wanted it to sound different.

I came to my love for soundtracks but I also didn’t want it to sound too classical and organic. I wanted it to have that same paradox so I came to the idea of doing a ‘fake’ album that would sound real but there would be something suspicious about it because we removed all the accidents. I tried to make music that was almost like electronic music but made with an orchestra. So we sampled everything, patched everything, looped everything, re-patterned everything and it was the best thing to do for the project.

All the parts I wrote for the orchestra got played by synthesizers, giving it a very interesting sound that is just weird. It has no emotion but it’s very powerful in terms of frequencies and sound and it has that futurism about it that I’m interested in.

So we mixed it fifty-fifty – the whole album – classic drums mixed with techno kicks. Very hybrid. And that goes with the story of the album, of a kid who collides with the massive city and petrifies as he grows up.

That image of the child (a marble statue of a boy wearing a Viking helmet, which also appears in the ‘Run Boy Run’ video) is something you used at the show last night and I thought it was such an intensely sad thing, this symbol of innocence, crumbling away.

What I like is that people are clapping their hands and celebrating it. It goes with all the paradoxes. You find the same thing in Depeche Mode – people dance to their sad music, which celebrates nostalgia. That’s one of the answers I found during the psychoanalytic process of this record – you get happy when you celebrate sadness and embrace anything that’s dark inside you. You say “’fuck it, that’s how I am, I’m gonna use that to be beautiful.”

That’s what I do. I’ve used the scars and nostalgia I have. Instead of turning it into a self destructive-process, I’ve turned it into a sense of beauty. I’ve always been interested in that. It’s romantic on a very literal level, emphasising all the emotions. I like working that way because then the voice – a very fragile element of the production – will collide with that massive sound element that is so rigid and so synthetic. The voice is so un-worked on the album, very raw, sometimes off-key.

You’ve mentioned perfection and I’m curious as to how that fits in with your approach to creation. The need to artificially build something for a visual rather than use the real thing is interesting: do you feel there is such a thing as perfection or is it all about the pursuit?

I don’t think perfection exists because there’s a sense of subjectivity but I’ve never pretended to be perfect. I try to be an artisan and make things I assume to be beautiful and I want to be beautiful and are perfectly crafted. I’m fascinated by artists that master their art, from fashion designers who can transform the body with a flat piece of fabric, know how to stitch it, how to work with the tension of the fabric. I’ve been fascinated by furniture designers who can make and remake the same piece of furniture again and again until they have the perfect object. Classical painting that has that sense of perfection, like the technique of sfumato, making it so soft and removing every trace of the brush strokes to make it hyper-real.

That sense of perfection which doesn’t really mean perfection but ‘ high-craft’ actually creates emotion for me because when things get on a level that is divine somehow, that moves me more than when things are super rough.

So how do you know when a song is finished, when to walk away?

It’s hard for me. Songs can be reinterpreted Films cannot. When a film is done, you know when it’s done. I don’t see the process of printing a song on a record as the final step. I see a lot of problems in the album, a lot of things I don’t like but that’s okay because I love the songs. I know I can transform them. I’m not obsessed by perfection in music, more in the visuals.

One of the things I think dominates your videography – as with your music – is this sense of momentum, constant movement. It’s there in your stage visuals as well as a lot of the stuff you’ve worked on for others. With the show last night, you also set another motif against that: a perfect light that appears somewhere the distance and always unobtainable.

In my camera work as a director, I’ve always been unable to have a still shot. Especially on a dolly in – when you have a track and you push the camera symmetrically towards the centre.

The first track on the album is actually very cynical named because I say that the golden age is over – when you leave your parents’ front door to live your life, your childhood, your innocence, when you’re protected ends.

But the light appears as the centre-point that you’re trying to reach again, the innocence. I change the light as the emotional intensity changes. The show ends on this very visceral, dark image of organs that actually contain almost the heart, the final source of light.

Where will you go next with visuals for the show? Will you incorporate more elements from the music videos you’ve done for the tracks into it?

I never wanted to incorporate the music videos for the songs into the show. My videos for the show are about intuition and feelings. I use the same codes; symmetry, a lot of black and white, past verus future. I use some of the same images from the videos – like the city – but it’s always in a very abstract form. I want to develop that a bit more. All these themes that are organic, mineral, digital visions of that quest.

How did the book become part of the project?

The same way I worked on the visuals and music like fragments….I’ve always loved writing and I started to ask myself questions about the physical format of the record and the meaning of it. I came up with the idea of dong something for the limited edition. I came back to Poland where I am originally from and we worked on this piece with my cousin. It’s a fragmented story: memories, emotional poetry, childhood, that quest for the golden age, finding that kid inside you again.

It’s not a tale illustrated by video and music. The Golden Age is an archaeological work, a puzzle, fragments that everyone can stitch together.

Woodkid, 2013, Babylon Berlin by Erik Weiss

You’re planning a full length film at some point in the future too?

Yes but I’m very patient. I have the album to promote for the next year and a half. I’m using the break in directing to go back to university. Whenever I have free time I watch movies, study screen-writing. I have to change my process of writing which is very about intuition and feelings, very abstract. I need to be able to do the opposite of that right now – have an idea that is about words and translate that into visuals.

Would a film be an extension of the same themes?

While I have these paradoxes in my videos, the ‘Wasting Time‘ I did for The Shoes is a very free and human video. There is nothing fantastic about it and I could go in that direction for a feature film. I could also go more science fiction or fantasy which is something people might expect from me. I haven’t made a choice yet but yes, the themes would probably link to those [of The Golden Age].

It feels very much like the those themes will connect with people on a deeper level.

My intention with the record was to connect on an emotional level. The question was how and on what form could I generate the maximum level of emotion. It was almost an experiment to push the boundaries of emotion, using sound, the stage, the visuals, black and white. Positive emotions like joy but disturbing ones too. The paradox of dancing and crying at the same time.

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