Halo Maud interview: We discuss creating her debut, singing bilingually, her past with religion, the magic of reversed sounds and more
Friday saw the release of Je Suis Une Île, the debut album from French artist Halo Maud. It’s the culmination of many years of working in the Parisian underground scene with the likes of Melody’s Echo Chamber, Moodoïd and other musicians around the label Le Souterrain. Bringing all of this experience into the recording of the album – as well as some key players to augment the sound – Halo Maud has created a swirling and deeply resonant album that manages to sit outside of time and space, but hit with the impact of bereavement at any time. Thanks to Maud’s fearlessly and poetically personal words, and her natural switching between English and French, Je Suis Une Île is an album that places you in a land of uncertainty and allows you to float there in contemplation as you listen.
We had the chance to sit down with Halo Maud on a wet and rainy day, to talk over tea through the secrets and sources of inspiration for Je Suis Une Île.
If you had to put this album into a genre, what would you call it?
Good question. Maybe a mix between dream pop and chansons Françaises.
You don't think it's psychedelic at all? That's one of the words that comes to my mind.
It's not a word I can use because I think I don't really understand it myself, because I have not listened to psych music a lot, so I'm not really familiar with it. I know that everybody wants to say "ah, you do psych pop" but actually I don't know.
Je Suis Une Île translates to "I am an island," is there something slightly sarcastic about that title? Like a flip on the old saying “no man is an island.”
No, it's pretty serious actually! [Laughs] It's poetic of course, but it's just about solitude. I think I didn't know before doing the album what the title would be, but yeah once I did this song, ‘Je Suis Un Île’, I knew that it would be the title of the album because it's the main theme, and that's what I felt like when I was doing it. Alone, but in a good way.
Where did you write the songs?
I work mostly at home in Paris. A lot is written before I go to the studio, I record demos by myself, which include a lot of it; a lot of arrangements - almost everything. We kept some parts as they were, played roughly at home, and some other tracks have been recorded again in the studio. So it's a mix between demos and studio session.
And that solitude and isolation when you start the song is key to the creation.
Yes, absolutely. I've tried a bit of collaborating, but I can't at the moment write well if I'm not alone, because I'm really slow and I need to try, try, try a lot of things. I don't feel free enough if I'm with someone else.
You worked in lots of other projects before, what made you decide to go solo as Halo Maud?
I actually wrote songs before working with other people, so it's been a while now. I started to be a musician for other bands and I think I just felt it was the moment for me. I spent a lot of time experimenting, looking for the sound I wanted, looking for what I really wanted to say, and yeah just when ended up writing a couple of the first songs which are on the album. I just felt that it was the moment for me; it had some special meaning, this time.
Which were the first songs that you wrote?
There is one song, which is very old, 'Baptism', I recorded it like 5 years ago. It was not supposed to be on the record, because for me it was a long while ago, but it's special. Then I think it was 'Dans La Nuit', it was the first song that I wrote in French.
You wrote everything in English before that.
Yes, it's weird because I don't speak English very well.
You've said that everything sounds better in English - why is that?
Because I'm French! [Laughs] It's just a matter of sound and sonorities in this language. I have the feeling that you can say everything and it can be beautiful. In French it's much more difficult to make some words sound good, because it's harsher.
One of the things I really like about this album is that it sounds like an album in structure, with a beginning and an end and division point in the middle where it kind of reflects on itself. When did you come up with that concept?
It's not a concept at all because I didn't know that it would end up like that! I really tried to let things come to me, and bridges between songs to be created by themselves almost. It's only after it was done I though "ah, OK I understand that these songs are kind of an answer to the other ones." So it was a surprise for me, but at the same time I think when I was doing it I had a deep feeling that some hidden meanings were happening. I was not always very conscious of it, but I knew that something was happening and I like to believe in this kind of magic in creation.
Do you still think of the album as the ultimate format for music?
I don't know... I know that I needed to do it this time, a proper album, but yeah I don't know if I will do another one in this format. In this time of Spotify and everything, I don't know if it's still meaningful.
When you listen to music do you still listen to albums or is it playlists?
I think mostly to separate songs, actually. Of course I will listen to an album is it's an artist I admire. Recently I've enjoyed the latest Deerhoof album, I'm a huge fan if that band; a young band called Palm, their album Rock Island; the latest Grizzly Bear.
Your album starts with 'Wherever'; when did you know this would be the first song?
Late, because this song was not supposed to be on the album. I didn't record it at the same time, it was later. I knew I wanted to start the album with something like a drum pattern, so it was a good track to begin.
The drums at the start is great, it sounds so good, it sounds like you're inside the drums. The song talks a lot about having someone all over you, like a physical memory: "tu écrivais sur moi des mots tenaces" - "you wrote indelible words on me."
Yeah it's a memory that's still alive, when you can still feel physical sensation of someone.
I find it interesting that the whole song is in French except one line, "it made me want to be wherever you are," and there's quite a lot of flipping between languages in the songs; do you consider every line in both languages or is it more natural?
No, it's natural. In this case in 'Wherever', this sentence was something that I received. Someone wrote this to me, and it resonated a lot with me, so I just wanted to write it. In the other cases it comes naturally; I don't know why sometimes just one sentence in English comes, and I choose not to translate them and to let them be as they came to me.
'Du Pouvoir / Power' is next, which was also on the EP that you released last year, why did you keep it on the album?
Because the subject is very important to me. It's about self-confidence, and it was obvious that it should be on the record for that reason.
What is your power?
I think the power is just not waiting and doing what you have to do. It's very basic, but that's it.
And to "learn patience," I like that because I'm very impatient, have you found yourself impatient in the past?
I'm both actually. In music I'm more impatient. Songwriting is not frustrating at all, but it's long, it's mainly a matter of self-confidence, because sometimes you spend a lot of hours trying things, like an hour on one word, and if you're not sure that you're gonna succeed you just give up. So you just have to have enough self-confidence to tell yourself "OK, I know it's going to be long, but I know it will come."
In 'Chanceuse' there's an interesting couplet in English, "grow the empty space/ wild goose chase."
It's about the sensation of emptiness and desolation of life sometimes, like "am I doing all this in vain or not?" It's this kind of feeling.
I really like this thought "Is better the enemy of good?", which plays into that constant dissatisfaction.
In this song I'm saying that even when I'm lucky I always want more, I'm never happy. It's this bad tendency to always want more than you have and to be always trying and trying and trying.
'Surprise' ends with a not very nice surprise "leave me smashed, leave me slashed, it’s what everyone wants."
It's the need for being close to someone, being someone who is still affected by their latest love story.
I think the title 'Tu Sais Comme Je Suis' sounds great in French, but translating it to 'You Know How I Am' makes it sound like an Oasis song! But again this a song where you're opening yourself up to someone.
It's more desperate than that. This time it's really the end of the story, "OK, you know how I am, and we can't do anything more." It's like that. It's over.
There's something really passionate about it though. If the album can be seen in two acts this makes a great ending to the first half.
That's what I discovered when I had to choose the order. It was like "wow!" I like this surprise.
'De Retour' is the little 1 minute instrumental that falls in the middle of the album, was it recorded just to slot into that place?
No, no, actually it's a part of another song that I cut in two parts. It was a part of 'Proche Proche Proche' and I decided to make another little instrumental track out of it.
'Baptism' starts with a really cool kind of African rhythm...
I'm often first inspired by rhythm when I'm writing a song. I found this pattern on a drum machine and it started like that. It sounds a bit African as you say, and I just like the feeling and the balance.
There's a child's voice in 'Baptism'...
It's a friend’s child. In this song I'm singing about baptism, of course, but a baptism is a second birth, so for me it was about becoming a woman, so it made sense that it started with a child's voice.
And you have actually been baptised, do you have any memories?
Yes, because I was 12 or 13. I was very into religion because my father was a reverend. Actually I wrote these songs about my own baptism because I think I expected something very new, I think I was expecting to feel very different, like reborn. I was fully under the water, not just my head, and when I came out of the water I didn't really feel anything. I was like "OK, I'm still myself..." I was a little bit disappointed about that. So that's what inspired this song, years later.
Did you tell your father that you didn't feel any different?
No, I think he would have been pretty sad.
That reminds me, there's an interesting quote in the bio where you say you were having a "mystical crisis" growing up, what do you mean?
I didn't have a teenage crisis, but instead of that I was really into religion and reading the Bible and praying, but one day it all ended because I realised that I was on the wrong path and I was also disappointed in what some people I met in these kind of religious circumstances were doing with religion. At the beginning the message is a message of love and hope, and some people are the opposite of that, actually, so I thought "I don't want to be with them anymore and I don't want to endorse these kind of people."
Is 'Fred' dedicated to a real person?
Yes, it's Fred Frith the musician. The song doesn't speak about him of course, because I don't know him personally, but it's called 'Fred' because the first chord of the song was inspired by one second of the film about his life, which is called Step Across The Border. He's a musician that I really admire.
In 'Fred' lines like "I would have taken even more, but you didn’t have any," seem like you're taking the power back somewhat.
You think I seem more powerful? Again it's about solitude, but more about someone who's leaving.
That leads into the title track 'Je Suis Une Île', which has a reversed sample of 'Du Pouvoir' at its core, how did that come about?
It's because I always try to put things backwards. Everything. Sometimes it's just a guitar riff, but this time the whole song backwards and I was amazed - except the drums, of course. It created a weird vocal part with a new melody and new words - they weren't words of course but I heard words. I heard "rocher", "île", and so I wrote 'Je Suis Une Île', it came like that.
It doesn't have the drums, but it doesn't necessarily need them because the reversed sample has a really cool clipped rhythm. Have you tried it on much else?
Everything! 'Tu Sais Comme Je Suis' begins with a guitar in reverse. There's voices in reverse on 'Surprise' also. I don't remember them all.
What is it that attracts you to it?
I like the weirdness of it, of course, but also the hidden meaning of things and of sounds. The same but not the same.
What's the mood of 'Je Suis Une Île' the track?
This time I really feel like this island, I really feel the sea, and I really see someone looking for a way to find a place in the world. How to live, how to be with people.
Is it a healthy thing to proclaim "I am an island" or is it self-destructive?
I think that even though there's not a question mark, I think it's more of a question. Also, sometimes I am an island and sometimes I'm not.
It's like the tide rising and falling, connecting and disconnecting you from the mainland. Next is 'Proche Proche Proche', another song where you're really yearning for someone. Was this one written in a low moment?
This one yeah. Well, each time, actually. It helps a lot. With 'Proche Proche Proche' I was not so sad, I think I felt really needy. When I write it gives me fulfilment, so I don't feel needy anymore.
I really like the end of 'Proche Proche Proche' where your guitar and voice are kind of jumping around together, was that always written into the song?
No, I asked a guy called Benjamin Gilbert who plays guitar an amazing band called Aquaserge, to improvise on this song, and he played those weird notes, and I sang over it after. It was just perfect. It was a very special moment for me.
In 'Dans La Nuit' you sing about making films, is that something you've tried?
I haven't, but I'm fascinated by that. I like Wim Wenders films, I like Cassavetes films... contemplative movies I think. Recently I've been watching a lot of old French movies with this actor called Patrick Dewaere; I like that you can feel the intensity when he's acting.
Is 'Dans La Nuit' a fantasy or a real story?
I think it's both. It started as a real story, but it was written during the night, so it became a mix between reality and a more dreamy interpretation. It's a really sad song, but it ends up with me saying "you leave, you’re not ready/ I’ll forget too/ and my dreams fade away"; it's like me accepting to forget you and to forget my dreams.
The album finishes with 'Des Bras', which links very nicely back to the first song, 'Wherever', with its mention of coldness and again physical memory. I like the line "in your arms, I believe that I can’t survive a thing", which is like the opposite of the old trope of feeling indestructible when in someone's arms. Is it a tongue-in-cheek line?
No, it's not at all cynical. It's a first degree thing. It's something I always feel. It doesn't really depend on who I'm with, it's just my thing. You're supposed to feel safe when you're with someone else, it's this sudden realisation that I still feel alone and I still feel unsafe.
Why did you put this feeling last on the album?
At the end of the song there's a spoken part that says "goodbye, see you soon." So it's a conclusion of course, but also I kept the door open a little bit. I wanted this album not to be too sad, I wanted a bit of light, and I liked the idea of finishing it by leaving the door open.
We talked about films a little, are there any other particular films that might have influenced the album?
There's experimental short movies from Maya Deren. I found a lot of short movies that inspired me, I couldn't say why. Sometimes other art than music inspired me more than music. I'm never able to explain why when I see a picture and I'm like "OK I've got new ideas." It comes to me. Also, when I go to see exhibitions I like to have the picture with the explanations, and I'm often inspired by what I read about visual artists, their lives, their own inspirations, explanations about what they've done - it's really inspiring. While making the album I saw an exhibit of the photographer Claude Cahun - I go to a lot of photography exhibitions actually, I think it's what I like the most.
Halo Maud’s debut album Je Suis Une Île is out now on Heavenly Recordings.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 29th May 2018.