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Before Autre Ne Veut takes the stage for an intimate No Ceilings show later this month, we met up with him in New York City’s Gibson Brands Showroom to talk about his excellent new album Age of Transparency, the music he grew up listening to, and the current state of pop. While there, Sean Stout filmed a stripped down performance of “Panic Room,” which you can watch above. If you haven’t yet, listen to Age of Transparency, and go buy tickets to the show.
When did you first realize you could sing?
I have no memory of that, I have been singing before walking probably.
When were you first comfortable doing it in front of other people?
In front of my family it was immediate. I remember some pretty early childhood memories like my sister, who’s a couple years younger than me, was old enough to be annoyed that I was singing the guitar part along to some kid’s cassette in the car. I’ve been singing non-stop.
What music did you grow up listening to?
Well, my parents taste ranged from a lot of, well they were expats, living in Kenya before I was born. So weirdly, a lot of West African music, not East African music, and South African music just because that was more popular, even in Kenya. And reggae. My mom was also into Enigma and Enya, the two big Es of super chill music. Also Phil Collins solo albums. Then the music that I got into on my own was like the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, which is a bunch of old soul numbers mixed with corny 80s blue-eyed soul ballads. Also Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bad.
As I got older I got really into SWV in particular for some reason, and En Vogue. Then when I got angrier I got into Nirvana and The Breeders. So kind of half angry music, but mostly depressed, trying to yell through the depression kind of anger. I’ve listened to a lot of different kinds of stuff.
Is there one genre or phase that you think influences you the most?
Well, once I discovered deep reggae and early reggae, Rock City stuff, Staxx Records and Motown stuff, I think the raw core forms of songwriting are built out of those genres. In a way, they tend to be concise and the verse and the chorus are both competing to be the hook, but in a way that doesn’t really conform to contemporary pop music norms, but is still very much pop form.
I think I got stuck there in a lot of ways. I love the harmonies and the kind of revelry that happens around ’60s Jamaican and soul music. But if you were to listen to No Jacket Required and the second Enya record, and Dirty Dancing you can kind of pick out almost any element in any of my records.
Can you talk about when you started writing your own songs?
I started writing my own songs way before I started recording. I had a Casio keyboard just like many other kids across the country, and I loved the soft rock drum preset and so I became obsessed with this idea of being a soft rock star. I didn’t even know what it meant, but I wrote these big chord ballads. I don’t think they were any good and they definitely weren’t recorded to figure out whether or not they were.
I got my first 8-track recorder my freshman year of college, or maybe senior year of high school. I started making recording in that capacity and started writing very seriously. I started a rock band with a friend of mine and I couldn’t play any instrument at all so I really relied on him, but then I kind of figured out guitar and started having these competitions on who could write the better song every week. Got really into analysing Nielsen records and The Kinks and more canonical singer/songwriter stuff, breaking them apart and figuring out how to borrow from them.
It seems like something just clicked with Anxiety.
Yeah, for sure. That was the first studio record I made and it turns out that I love studios—love, love, love studios. If I had a studio—a big old studio with a window—I would be able to live there all of the time. But yeah, I think that really opened up things for me. It’s frustrating for me to just work on a laptop now, which I used to do exclusively. My first album was just all me and a laptop and I could work anywhere.
I read somewhere that you worked on jingles for commercials for a while?
Yeah, I think that was overstated, wherever that started. I worked for a production company that recorded stuff for web and small data file CD-ROMs. It was in the early 2000s and there were a lot of questions about licensing for music on the internet. They have figured out how to kind of screw us over by now, but the way they did back then was that they would have people like me in offices, and we’d sit around and recreate the vibe of a song you would hear in a commercial.
So you don’t think that was a big turning point for you? It didn’t affect the way you write?
No, I think it was good for work practice though. I’m like an under-talented musician, meaning that I have to work ten times harder than a real musician to get where I get with my music. For me, it was aboiut discovering that work ethic could help to produce a more effective piece of music. That was learned having that desk job. I’d go in everyday and have a boss that was like, “This sounds too weird.” and I’d be like, “Oh, I have to make it less weird now?”
So yeah, I definitely took away certain aspects but it wasn’t an affirmative “Man, I wanna make pop because I’m writing jingles” kind of thing.
When I listen to your music, sometimes it feels like you could write a mainstream pop record but you avoid those obvious sounds. Is that intentional?
I think there’s a reason why there are 30 people on every fucking hit—it’s really hard. Really, really hard. I’ve just started sitting in on those sessions and participating in that world a little bit—the writing and production world for other people—and it requires so much rightness in a very particular way. The people who seem to succeed there are really fast and they shit out a lot of stuff that sounds really similar but they pick from the 30 tunes that could be the hit, and they take the one that is a hit, and that’s the one that makes the radio. It’s really rigorous and the people who do it are really, really good at what they do.
I think it’s real on some level that the gap is closing between the actual sound of what an indie band is doing and a mainstream artist is doing, but how they get there is often different.
Do you think that pop music is getting more experimental? Even with artists like Justin Bieber, it feels like he’s moving in a new direction.
Yeah! I love that song, by the way, “What Do You Mean?” The second I heard it I loved it too, like I fell for the whole trap. I was one of the 46 million people who watched it right away and was like “Yes!” Yeah, I don’t know if that’s really experimental. I know what you’re saying, but I would say that the Neptunes and Timbaland still trump the weirdness of most of what’s happening now.
I think it’s real on some level that the gap is closing between the actual sound of what an indie band is doing and a mainstream artist is doing, but how they get there is often different. There’s this aspiration that indie artists, myself very much included at times, aim high, in terms of the music at least, and then there’s kind of the Miguel model or the last Beyoncé record with her working with Boots a lot. Kanye West too, they dig deeper into what’s going on in independent and underground music and kind of incorporate some of those ideas into their music.
I think Kanye is really doing it. I think he’s really bringing weird shit out and I think it’s great. The only sad part is that the second Kanye does it, it’s no longer weird because he’s the paradigm.
If a major pop star wanted to bring you in and wanted you to write songs for them would you?
Yeah, 100 percent.
I read once that you didn’t write down any lyrics. Is that still true?
I do write lyrics a little bit more than I used to, but there’s something about that moment. With the song, the structure of it is produced and the breaks are often there by the time I’m singing my final take and I put so much effort into being meticulous with the production that I like the vocal aspect to be off the book a little bit. I think it’s like my opportunity to really let loose, so even if I have guiding lyrics, I tend to stray from them.
Can you talk a little about the new album? How is it different from Anxiety?
It was a much more arduous process. I think it was a much more ambitious concept musically. The idea of creating a set of bespoke jazz samples for the entire record is an insane and way too expensive thing to do and I don’t think I’ll ever have the opportunity to do it again. Being the producer after I’ve made this thing that felt really close to me, I felt like I was one of those dudes in the ’70s making a record. That was an incredible fucking feeling and I left it almost being like, “Yup that’s it, I’m a fucking middle-aged dude and I am making a jazz record. That is what’s happening.”
Anxiety was really immediate. I had written all of the songs before going to the studio, demoed a bunch of it out, it was just like blam! blam! blam! We recorded a bunch of stuff, the vibe was cool, tracked everything, two weeks went by and we mixed the record and that was that. This one was a good year of me alone in my home studio and just giving myself neck and back pain trying to make this work. There were different iterations of this process and things were better and some were worse.
I think of myself as not having a very good voice, but I’ve spent so much time in my life figuring out how to use it, so I can just use my not-so-good voice better than a lot of people who may even have good voices.
Can you talk about the title, Age of Transparency?
The title of Age of Transparency is a kind of tongue-in-cheek nod to this notion of social media and our relationship and how we can express ourselves publicly and show ourselves publicly. As well as the fact that I went from being a private person to having a public aspect of my life. There’s this kind of fantasy behind the lie which is the platonic ideal of transparency. The notion that we can really expose ourselves to anyone else in some kind of sweeping gesture or through our literature, or our art, or our Facebook page or whatever. The idea that we can somehow actually communicate and become closer to other people in that way. It’s just totally absurd, an impossibility. Sure, we’re more connected, like yeah I can reach out to someone in the Philippines and say, “What’s up, I’m glad you like this record.” But that doesn’t make me and that person closer, it just means that we can knock ones and zeros against each other.
Where does humor come into play with your music? Seems like there is a satirical or tongue-in-cheek aspect to a lot of what you do.
Yeah, straight-faced satire is probably my favorite classical category of art. I’m not really into comedy but I believe that satire has the ability to be funny by exposing uncomfortable feelings and ideas. That’s been part of what I’ve done the whole time. I think that’s maybe where this whole idea of transparency becomes foggy or whatever. I like to play with those things.
Do you want to be famous? If you could be a huge pop star making what you’re making right now would you want that?
I think fame is a really gnarly burden. I’ve never known anyone that’s truly famous personally in a real way but my inclination is to feel too sorry for Britney Spears when she has a nervous breakdown and shaves her head. I don’t think celebrity is a nice position to be in, I think it’s self-abusive. Would I love to be rich making the music I’m making? Sure. That would be great. [Laughs] But no, not famous.
How would you describe your own voice?
I don’t know, I’m so tired of it but it’s the only one I got. I think of myself as not having a very good voice, but I’ve spent so much time in my life figuring out how to use it, so I can just use my not-so-good voice better than a lot of people who may even have good voices. Some people can sing and they sound nice, but they can’t really express anything. I feel like it is a tool that I can use to express emotions and express ideas as a singer, not just as a reciter of lyrics. Just a well used, poor tool.