Nine Songs: Emilie Nicolas
Emilie Nicolas’s music, an intoxicating blend of R&B and subtle Scandinavian grace, is reflected in the songs she loves, in particular her connection with singing and the intimacy of the songwriting process.
Her second record Tranquille Emile, the follow up to 2015s’ Like I’m A Warrior comes after an arduous period in her life, where Nicolas had to take time away from making music to recover from a brain tumour. After going through such a difficult time she decided to put her songwriting on hold until she felt completely ready to return. “Some people get straight back to work, but I was quite shaken by the whole thing so I waited and got better again and then I started making this new album.”
However, Nicolas didn’t want her illness to define Tranquille Emile. “It’s not easy writing about something that medical and I’ve always been writing about death and love, you know, the big stuff. It’s mostly about a lover, I was in love with a guy; it’s a love album. I think it says a lot that you can go through two years of being sick and then you meet one guy and that’s all you’re focused on.” Love is a defiant emotion and the bewildering trance of infatuation flows through both Tranquille Emilie and the songs she admires.
As we discuss her song choices Nicolas’s unpretentious nature becomes abundantly clear, the songs range from the classic to the bang up-to-date, highlighting her romanticism for the past but also a desire to look forward into the future. She speaks in raptures over the simplistic beauty of lyrics and vocal deliveries, she’s less interested in production but more about how the music feels. Intriguingly, the title of Tranquille Emile was an attempt to offset some of the more weighty emotions of the music.
“I’ve always loved the saying. It’s just something you throw out to a person when they’re feeling stressed and kind of a joking thing to say. I’m usually quite serious with my songs, they’re overdramatic, so having 'Tranquille Emile' as a headline over the whole album I thought was quite funny, as if to say, ‘I know I’m super dramatic, but listen to my album anyway!’”
“Sade was the first artist that I bought a record by and this is a song that has stuck with me for a very long time. When I first heard ‘Kiss of Life’ I was in France, driving through the countryside in Brittany with my parents. I think it was sunset and I just had this amazing feeling. I was 14 at the time and I was listening to it on a Minidisc, the greatest invention of all time!
“It’s just the perfect kind of mood and the way that she sings it is so soft. She’s so calm and sexy and warm, but it’s also the old kind of music, if you take away the vocals it sounds kind of like ‘80s elevator music. All of her work is great, but ‘Kiss Of Life’ is just one of the best songs to me.”
“I love to ride my bike and that’s how you get from A to B in Oslo, on your bike. I remember putting ‘15 Step’ on whilst cycling downhill and it was ‘Oof! Perfect, it’s perfect.’
“It was hard picking one song from the album In Rainbows because I have seriously been saying on repeat for over ten years that it’s an amazing record. But ‘15 Step’ was the first one you heard when you first listened to the album, and it’s also the one I listened to the most. I love it when you hear an album and you love the first song and then you love the second song the most, and then it evolves and suddenly every one of them is your favourite. But it takes a long time and I love that, when you have to listen to it many, many times.
“The melodies and the lyrics are great, but what I like most about Radiohead are the rhythms and the way that they change, every song is evolving and changing in a perfect way. It’s the way that they play with rhythms and beats but they also have this amazing vocal that’s kind of timeless. It’s beautiful and cool.”
“First of all, I’m very intrigued by Kanye West and his whole persona. I try to understand him in interviews, I’ve sat and watched hours of Kanye West talking about fashion, trying to understand him and trying not to think that he’s just crazy. But then I think, ‘Well he is crazy!’ But every time he releases new music it’s always very, very good and I find that exciting. He talks so much, so to finally hear new music is a good thing, because it’s like ‘Forget about all of that stuff I’ve been saying and just listen to the song.’
“What I love about ‘I Thought About Killing You’ is the loop in the beginning, I think it’s so sexy and cool and when he then says, ‘Today I thought about killing you,’ and he kind of explains it so well in the song. I’m probably not supposed to be saying this, but I’ll say it anyway, I love artists that say something that’s not correct.
“I think he makes it harder for people to love his music because he talks so much, but he’s also a breath of fresh air for people in the sense that he just says whatever he’s thinking of. He could have released the songs and just shut up, he could have stayed quiet and it would be as great as it is, but it gets more interesting because you know he’s saying so much and he has so much on his mind. I think he tries to do something that we don’t understand.”
“I love all of H.E.R.’s songs so it was difficult to pick one, but I love the lyric in this track where she says “I just wanna go / you want me to leave.” I think that’s a perfect way of describing being with someone when it’s not right - she wants to be with him but he wants to leave and then she wants to go because it’s horrible to be with someone that wants you to leave.
“I was pretty heartbroken when I wrote my last album, so every song that has something you can relate to in that sense is a gift, when you listen to something and think ‘I know what she feels.’
"She sings so well, it feels calm, quite minimalistic but also very beautiful at the same time. She’s very young, she’s just twenty years old and I’m thirty, but it doesn’t matter.”
“The vibe of this song! I love the part where he says ‘You’re a natural blonde like coco’ or something, I’m not sure if he says that. I don’t understand his lyrics, but when the beat comes in you just go ‘uh!’ It’s amazing.
“It feels like he just jumps into thoughts and he doesn’t feel the need to explain what he’s singing about. He’s not telling a story, a lot of songs are pretty easy to understand, they’re like ‘I was at the bar, then she came in and I was sad.’ We usually want the listener to understand what we’re singing about, but with Frank Ocean it feels like it’s just him writing down notes and cool sentences. He’s just putting it all together but it works, and I’ve never heard anyone else who can do that in the same way.
“I’m not that geeky about production, mixing and that kind of stuff. I have people that are very good at producing, but I can’t hear if a song is well produced or not. In the same sense that these other people can, my brain doesn’t understand what that is. For me it’s the way that people sing, the lyrics, the mood and the vibe. With Frank Ocean, you feel that he’s just there, he’s going away with something. It doesn’t feel constructed in the same way that other songs are.”
“When this song came out, I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever heard. And then I saw his video and he was just smiling, there were white cars in a desert and I was like, ‘who is this person and what is this?’ I listened to his album and I really love that he was mixing guitar with R&B and country music with R&B. Because R&B is like the modern pop, it’s what all the people are listening to and it’s the most mainstream thing now, so I love that he was mixing things together.
“I think Post Malone is a very interesting artist, he has so many different genres that he brings to one thing, but ‘White Iverson’ is a very R&B song. I know that he made it and put it on SoundCloud and he got so many listeners and views and clicks, so I can kind of picture the way he wrote the song without knowing it would be this huge thing. And that’s what I think is very beautiful, when you have that immediate connection, ‘Oh, I made this cool thing and then I put it on SoundCloud.’
“I wish every song was like that. I miss that, but I think I was able to do that with my newest album. With so much time off I ended my record deal with Sony RCA and I started from scratch again. That was the only way I could get back to the beauty of making music for myself and not having any pressure. So I love that I can listen to songs and know they were made by this one guy sitting in his room, just having a good time.”
“This song goes way back. My parents listened to Stan Getz and João Gilberto throughout my childhood, so that was the soundtrack of my childhood. When I went to university to study jazz, one of my teachers and I found out that we had the same love for bossa nova music. We were sitting in his office and he showed me ‘Besame Mucho’ and he started crying and then I started crying. I think that’s a beautiful moment just there.
“With all of the other songs I’ve talked about, what I’m trying to show is the simplicity of a beautiful vocal, without a lot of wailing and belting, just being calm and minimalistic and especially with this song, it just goes on and on, there’s no refrain and no bridge, it’s just repeat, repeat, repeat. James Blake was one of my favourite artists when I wrote my first album, because he had different ways of making a song and it made me think, ‘Wow can you really do that? Can you just say one sentence throughout the whole song? Is that allowed?’”
“I saw Zap Mama play in Norway once, in a boring conference room in a hotel. I was 24, studying jazz and she was playing at the Jazz festival. I don’t know why she was there but I was standing and dancing throughout her concert whilst all the other people were just sitting and looking at her. She was trying to engage the crowd, saying ‘Come on, get up and dance!’ and everybody was just sitting down.
“’Bandy Bandy’ is so cool. It’s not my favourite song of all time, but the way that the backing vocals work, for me that’s enough to love the song. That’s the reason I love the whole song, it’s just the way that they use their voices in a really cool way.
“What I love about singing is the details in vocals, the small details, how you can sing something that’s pretty ordinary but make it new or different. So when I went to study jazz that was my goal, to be greater at that, to find tonalities that are not mainstream. But I always think about that when I make songs; how can I surprise people? I got onto a Masters to study Arabic singing, but I didn’t go because I released ‘Pstereo’ and I had to get on that train, but if I hadn’t I would have been studying Arabic music. If you can combine that with modern R&B, I think you can make really cool music.”
“This song is sad and beautiful and it’s all of the things I want a song to have. I know this song is in Love Actually, when Emma Thompson is crying, that’s such a great scene and I love that scene so much. So I think that Love Actually made me listen to this song! That may not be very artistic of me, like ‘I was in Mogadishu, riding camels and then I heard that song!’ Nope. I’m sorry!
“I’ve not been a super-fan of Joni Mitchell, not because she’s not great, but I just haven’t listened to her that much, though I’ve sung a lot of her songs. When she was young she had that [Nicolas bursts into a great impression of a Joni Mitchell vocal] but on ‘Both Sides Now’ she’s smoked her cigarettes and lived her life and now she’s just making his song.
“So for me it’s more about the lyrics, the chords and the way she sings it. It feels like the summary of a life and I think that’s pretty powerful when you have that. It’s like ‘Here’s what I know; I don’t know anything.’ I think she knew that she’d made a really good song with ‘Both Sides Now.’ Sometimes you know when you’ve made a really good song and I think this is one of those.”