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EXCLUSIVE: Colleen on 'Captain of None' Thrill Jockey Records Release, Working with Naoko Tanaka and Christopher Thockler and African Music Influences

By Maria Jean Sullivan m.sullivan@classicalite.com on Jun 17, 2015 11:39 AM EDT
Colleen "I think that in all likelihood I would feel so humbled by the incredible musicianship that so many Jamaican and African musicians exhibit that I would probably just feel paralyzed if that were to happen!:-- Colleen (Photo : Thrill Jockey )

Much like myself, french multi-instrumentalist Colleen aka Cécile Schott takes sonic influence from Terry Riley, Arthur Russell, traditional African and Jamaican music and, naturally, the Wu Tang Clan. All of which she delved into on her edition of VF Mix 14, a vinyl-only mix series hosted by The Vinyl Factory, quoting “Bells of War” as her choice Wu cut. These influences trace back to Cecille’s childhood obsession with her parents cassette tape “The Kings of Reggae”, mostly consisting of Lee “Scratch” Perry tracks from 1976 to 1979.

In her own work, she uses her voice and the baroque instrument treble viola da gamba to recite intricate tales of the human mind and heart. Her latest release, Captain of None on Thrill Jockey Records is possibly the most experimental album in her repertoire featuring tracks heavily influenced by her Jamaican and African music obsession, embossed bass lines and, new to her, percussive effects.

Recorded, mixed and produced entirely by Cecille in her San Sebastian, Spain music studio, Cecille imparted dub production techniques, a melodica, a Moogerfooger and delay pedal and echo effects. Another intricacy of Captain of None: rather than bowing the instrument in a traditional manner, Cecille tunes the viola da gamba like a guitar and plucks it for a fresh perspective on what a string instrument is and can be. I had an e-conversation with Colleen on her Thrill Jockey release, where her love of the viola da gamba came from and the very real struggle for non-American artists to tour in the States.

Classicalite: Captain of None, released in April on Thrill Jockey, features a traditional baroque instrument you play in futuristic tone. Why did you chose to work with the viola da gamba? How you know decide to pluck rather than bow the instrument?

Colleen: I have to start by specifying that I do not come from a classical or baroque background, because I think that has a lot to do with how I approach the instrument. I started playing the guitar as a Beatles-obsessed 15-year-old, but I heard and fell in love with the sound of the viola da gamba when I watched  Alain Corneau’s French film Tous Les Matins du Monde on tv at the age of 16 or 17. The film did a lot to make the instrument and the music associated with it more well-known among non-specialist audiences in France. But, as far as I was concerned, playing the viola seemed like an unrealistic dream at best. My parents never had the finances at the time to acquire one. I lived in a small town where no viola de gamba teachers were to be found and I was incapable of reading a note on a score, which just seemed to prevent the whole thing from ever happening.

Many years later, once I had started my Colleen project and began to acquire more confidence as a self-taught player on several instruments, including the cello, I realized that nothing was keeping me from fulfilling my dream of playing the viola anymore. I ordered a bass viola da gamba from the excellent French luthier François Danger of Atelier des 7 cordes, and it was the start of a whole new journey. I did take about a year and a half of lessons in baroque music, which helped me grasp at least the basic spirit of that music, but I did not go further as I could feel that developing my own music on the instrument would be difficult if I kept pouring more energy in trying to learn the original viola repertoire.

Then, I released an album mostly played on the viola, Les Ondes Silencieuses, in 2007. At the time I mostly bowed the instrument, but did fingerpick/pluck it on two songs. In 2009 I ordered a treble viola da gamba from the same luthier. I had tried one at his home and absolutely loved the sound of it when fingerpicked – reminiscent of African instruments like the kora and of other non-Western instruments from Central Asia, which I also love. I adored the idea of such a feather-light and small instrument. But it was only in 2012, after a lengthy break from music-making, that I finally decided to see what I could do with the treble viola. I already knew my preference style would be fingerpicking it, especially since the smaller space between strings made that easier than on the bass viola. The event with the most creative consequences was simply tuning it down and using the same intervals as in a guitar. I instantly fell in love with the sound, which was fuller and more balanced than with the initial tuning and I immediately started creating new songs with it. A couple of which were released as part of my fourth album The Weighing of the Heart released in 2013. My infatuation became even stronger once I realized how appropriate the instrument was for the approach I wanted to develop for my fifth album, Captain of None. The album is indebted to Jamaican dub from the 1970s, African string-instrument playing and the free spirit of someone like Arthur Russell – in short the idea is to have a coexistence and integration of very different worlds of sound, one that is very acoustic and often non-Western and the other where the focus is on experimentation in terms of production

C-LITE: The Jamaican influences peppered throughout Captain on None add a fresh juxtaposition to the viola de gamba. Sonically, you have carried the influences from a "The Kings of Reggae" cassette tape your parents had from the late '70's and the fully stocked Parisian libraries. Do you have any upcoming trips to Africa or the Caribbean to collaborate with any regional artists?

Coleen: Sadly, no. I have no connections with promoters or musicians over there. To be 100% honest, I also have to say that I’m used to and attached to working on my own. It’s a personality thing which I carry from childhood and against which I don’t fight anymore. I think that in all likelihood I would feel so humbled by the incredible musicianship that so many Jamaican and African musicians exhibit that I would probably just feel paralysed if that were to happen!

C-LITE: What were the issues you experienced regarding your visa for this years U.S. tour?

Colleen: I think that my issues were probably similar to the ones any European mid-sized musician faces when applying for an O1 visa (Alien with Extraordinary Ability), with two added difficulties in my case. First of all I have no booking agent in the US, which means I had to use all my contacts to try and secure sufficient dates to make this a tour -- which of course is even more difficult if you don’t have a visa yet (the promoters can find themselves having sold tickets for a show that may have to be cancelled)! It helped a lot that I had a show at San Francisco’s Exploratorium rescheduled from last year (due to the impossibility of obtaining a visa at that time, since I only had one show) and that my new album being released by American label Thrill Jockey. I was very fortunate to find promoters willing to take the risk.

My second problem was linked to the fact that you also need to provide proof of your “important status” on the music scene by providing press: I did not release any albums between 2007 and 2013 and the one I did release in 2013 was on a small English label, so the album went virtually unnoticed outside the UK.
In any case, I think it’s essential to rely on an agency specialised in securing visas for artists, I used Tamizdat for the second time and was not disappointed by their services.

C-LITE: You chose two very different artists for your music videos, Japanese artist Naoko Tanaka for title track "Captain of None" and Christopher Thockler for "I'm Kin". What about their varying styles deemed their work for each song? Or was it more of an organic choice?

Colleen: In general I’m really not a fan of the whole concept of music videos: I think a lot of times it’s just a mandatory step that artists are required to take in order to have a more sellable product and they rarely add real value to the music. After spending dozens of hours on the internet specifically looking for videos that would convince me, I encountered the work of Frenchman Christophe Thockler, who made a mindblowing video for Ben Neill and Mimi Goese’s “Cusp” song. The intelligence and inventiveness, crispness coupled with warmth, and overall beauty of his work won me over in seconds. I chose him for “I’m Kin” because the lyrics have a lot of references to actual objects and facts and I thought that he would know how to reinterpret these in visual terms.

For “Captain of None”, I chose the Berlin-based Japanese performance artist/scenographer Naoko Tanaka, who had contacted me a couple of years ago for a possible music commission for a work of hers. This is how I discovered her incredible skills with lights, shadows and projections, and although she’s not a video maker in the traditional sense of the term, I thought she would be perfect for “Captain of None” which is a song about the human brain and heart, therefore a song that’s harder to illustrate with realistic images. I wanted something that would emphasize the mystery of our inner being and Naoko’s stunning images, abstract but very organic and alive, have managed to express this more than I could ever have hoped for.

C-LITE: Your new album features references to Ulysses and his dog Argos, dark light, eclipse and the sun. Were you going through a certain personal or professional learning period while you were writing, producing or recording this work?

Colleen: In terms of lyrics, this album is actually almost a concept album (I say “almost” because I do find concept albums a bit scary!). I’ve always been fascinated by the human brain, how hard it is to truly understand or know anyone and how often the same thing applies for our own self-knowledge. I felt ready to try and explore this with lyrics, as well as compelled to write about the subject for personal reasons. So the album tries to express something about this complex and hard-to-express subject matter in ways which are hopefully inventive and not trite and leave enough room for each individual listener’s interpretation of what the lyrics mean. The references to light /darkness /vision are definitely linked to this.

As for the incredibly moving reunion of Argos with Ulysses and his subsequent death, it’s probably the passage in the Odyssey that moved me the most, and in my song “I’m Kin” he is part of a series of “things” I declare myself being kin to: past civilizations, other animal species, the elements – I’m fascinated by nature and am more and more in awe of its diversity and power, and that is what I was trying to express with this song.

Editors note: Be sure to catch Colleen at Subculture in NYC on June 23 as part of Wordless Music Presents. Doors open at 7 p.m. with curtain at 8 p.m. and tickets, starting at $15 in advance, can be purchased on the Subculture website

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, Classicalite Q&A, Captain Of None, Thrill Jockey, Naoko Tanaka, Christopher Thockler, Colleen