Interview: Cléa Vincent

Photo credit: Michelle Blades

Known for her DIY pop songs with an 80’s touch that harken back to the musical heritage of her French homeland, Cléa Vincent has released three EPs and one album of effervescent pop.  Vincent’s most recent EP however is a nod to the bossa nova and samba music that she loves, recording live in just two days.  CJLO had the pleasure of interviewing Vincent before her show at the M for Montreal festival last November.  The interview has been translated from its original French.

Your last EP, Tropi-Cléa, is a bit sunnier than your debut album, Retiens mon désir.  Is the EP’s bossa nova and Brazilian-inflected sound more of a one-off, or are you thinking of continuing this style of music for your next album?

Tropi-Cléa is a collection of pieces I had on the side that sounded a bit more Brazilian.  The second album will be very different from Tropi-Cléa; it will be more in line with Retiens mon désir, with a more mature sound because Raphaël [Léger, ex-Tahiti 80 and member of Vincent’s band] and I have progressed a lot.  On the other hand, I want to do a second Trop-Cléa.  That will come in the months of spring 2019.  Tropi-Cléa is a part of me, it’s very personal – I directed and wrote it all, while the albums are with Raphaël.  That’s the difference between Tropi-Cléa and Retiens mon désir: Tropi-Cléa is solo [and] Retiens mon désir is a joint project with Raphaël, who I adore and want to continue to work with.

Even if Trop-Cléa is more bossa nova and Brazilian in sound, you still sing in French.  Do you see yourself perhaps experimenting with other Latin languages for a second Tropi-Cléa EP?

I have asked myself this question, because I did a tour in Central America and I’m very much at ease in speaking Spanish, a lot more than with English. Very quickly in about 2-3 weeks I was really able to comprehend and speak the language.  And so I asked myself the question, and I decided that if I continue to return to Central America or South America, or for example if I go to Mexico, perhaps one day I will produce something in Spanish.  Or for example if I encounter someone who I have a real friendship with and we speak Spanish to each other, perhaps I will want to write a song in Spanish.

You’ve said that sometimes all it takes for you is to hear someone say a single line or phrase and that it can inspire you to write a song.  What do you do when that moment of inspiration hits you?

Recently I discovered that on the new version of iOS for the new iPhone there’s Garageband.  It’s very new for me, so for a little while I’ve started to compose music with my phone around everywhere, [like] in hotels: It’s really enjoyable.  When I have five minutes or when I wake up I like composing a little piece on my phone, [so] that’s very new.  If not, when I really have a good idea – something that is very legible and strong – generally I keep it in my head and it doesn’t leave.  If I forget it’s because it wasn’t a good idea, so I try to record it in my head or eventually in the Dictaphone.

What interests me about musicians is that the potential for inspiration is always there, so it’s perhaps difficult to find time to relax.  For a lot of people music is the way that they find peace, so what do you do to relax when you’ve had a long and stressful day?

I also listen to a lot of music – it makes me feel really good.  Generally, when I really need to relax I listen to music that isn’t the same as mine.  I don’t listen to pop, I listen to jazz, I listen to Brazilian music – it’s really makes me feel good.  What I like as well is the cinema.  It makes me feel great to see a good film! I believe the cinema and music are the two disciplines that carry me the most.

What are the things at this moment that relax you?

There is an artist who makes me feel good, who’s a Québécoise actually.  She lives in Paris [and] her name is Solange.  Solange te parle is the name of her blog and she does philosophical videos where she talks about her past [and] things about life.  She’s an artist as well, she writes about her difficulties in love and work:  It makes me feel really, really good listening to Solange te parle’s videos.  It’s not music, it’s not the cinema, it’s philosophy!

Even with things like that, such as philosophy, is there the potential to be inspired for musical ideas, or do you try and keep them separate?

I believe what inspires me the most is when I feel something really powerful,  like an electrical spark.  So, if all of the sudden I feel an emotional shock, it can be anger, a strong love, sadness, missing someone, (It’s we call ressentiments in French), I call it a wave into the soul, and when I feel a wave like that going through me it gives me inspiration. I believe that what I do is very, very personal, and I don’t know how to imitate someone or something. There are other things that inspire me a lot, [like] my musician friends.  For example, I have a friend called Kim who is an artist and writes a lot of songs. I like his way of doing things, and when I accompany him on the piano, I find a lot of inspiration: the proximity of our work ignites something in me that allows me to write. 

And you’ve said that you’re more of a person who prefers collaboration with other musicians rather than working solo, correct?

Yes, I like it a lot.  In fact, it’s also when I have a strong idea that I start to write, sometimes it’s one song in its entirety, and that’s great, though sometimes I have writer’s block, and I can’t finish it.  When I really want it to become something, I call someone who I think will be the right person [for the job].  It could Raphaël or it could be Kim, it could be with the musicians in my group as well.

That’s interesting, because an unhighlighted part of the creative process is when musicians create a song but hit writer’s block and have to decide whether to keep it or not.  When is it that you think to yourself “there’s nothing I can do with this song, I just need to scrap it?”  When is it that you know a song is weak and can’t be finished?

What I do is have Raphaël listen to it, and he’s like a filter.  For example, it’s happened to me that I’ve said “listen to this, it’s great,” and he’ll say “it’s lousy, it’s rotten.”  And on the other hand I’ll listen and say “it’s lousy, it’s rotten,” and he’ll say “no, it’s great!”  I really like testing songs with Raphael, and he also makes me listen to things, so we become the first judges [of our songs].  Generally though, I can hear well enough when a song is good or not.

So, there aren’t too many other people who you ask if it’s great or not, it’s just yourself and Raphael.

Yes, because for me it’s very, very intimate, it’s really the first phase.  The listening phase is very… when I listen to something I created I’m very timid, and for me the first time is really difficult.  So, Raphaël and I are very close and I can let him  listen, but I don’t branch out beyond that. 

Is it easy for you to listen to your finished songs once the material is released into the world, or are you still uncomfortable listening to them?

It depends, for myself I need time.  I can’t listen to my songs just after we have recorded them.  On the other hand, if I leave [a few years] pass by for re-listening, then I’m pleased.

I have one last question about song-writing, and it’s to do with the fact that you’ve recorded multiple versions of the same song throughout your releases, like with “Retiens mon desir,” “Château perdu,” and “Mechant loup.”  Why do you like to revisit your songs?

It’s this idea of a collection of pieces that go well together.  I found that “Retiens mon désir” and “Château perdu” had their place on an album.  Given that I had the desire to put them on my first album, it had to be coherent with the other pieces, so we gave them a bit of a new sound.  So, it’s always the idea when I revisit a song to integrate it to a track-listing.  It’s more about the idea of proposing an ensemble with the song more than the desire to revisit the song.  I think it can be thought of in terms of the album.

Do the lyrics to the songs take on a different context after being reworked?

Yes and no: “Retiens mon désir” had three versions.  There was a version on the debut album that was never released, at the time that I was signed to Polydor, a second version released on the [Non mais oui] EP, a third version on the album, and each time that I have sung the song it’s been addressed to the person for which I wrote this song.  In time I’ve grown, but it’s still directed towards the same person.

I’d like to talk about the stage now, since you’re here in Montreal for that purpose.  Do you test new songs while performing, or do you keep them until you believe they’re 100 percent ready?

I always start by playing them in concert, even before recording them because it permits [me] to develop the interpretation, [and] it permits me to see if it’s really interesting or not to people, so I’ve always done this inversely.  Before releasing Retiens mon désir I had played all the songs in concert already.

Does the audience aid you with this process?

A lot, because the song “J’my attendais pas,” when we played it before the album [release], everyone said “but where can we listen to this song?”  It was nowhere, and the frustration of people wanting to hear the piece gave us more of a desire to keep singing it. 

When you’re all on tour, do you listen to a lot of music while travelling in the van?

We listen to a lot of music.  It’s funny, because the person sitting next to the driver is the DJ, and we fight to sit up front to choose the music.

Does the music you listen to while travelling ever influence your own creative process, or is it, as you said earlier, things that are very different from what you end up performing on stage?

It depends, there’s current music, as in new albums released in our style, which inform us of who’s doing what.  It’s rooted in the idea of comparing oneself through comparing the sound and song-writing.  Then we will each take turns playing our favourite music; for example our bassist listens to a lot of grunge, and Raph adores R&B. Finally, we listen to the recordings of our concerts to hear if we played well and what can we improve.

Do you enjoy the process of listening to yourself perform?

I detest it, plus often the soundboard recordings, which are the concert recordings, are very dry.  We each have a little bit of sound coming from it, and we’re trying to listen for any passages that we are weaker at.  It’s not very pleasant, and I detest watching myself as well, but I believe everyone thinks when they hear their own voice “Ahh, that’s my voice?”  It’s horrible.

You’ve played everywhere, including France obviously, as well as England, Germany, Russia, and within South America.  Are there any countries or perhaps specific venues that you’d like to play in the future?

There’s an incredible venue in New York, but I no longer know what it’s called.  It’s an incredible club that fits about one-hundred people, and is located in a great district.  I would adore playing there, but it’s not for right now, because selling a hundred tickets in New York [is very difficult], though it gives me something to dream about.  There’s also a venue in Beijing called the Yugo Nishan, which is in a beautiful district as well [with] 500 seats.  I would really like to play there, and I’d like to play in Tokyo in a venue whose name I also forget, but there are places like that that I dream of playing.

You’ve said that you prefer the idea of a musician being an artisan and not a big star, an idea that is more D.I.Y. than a large entourage managing your career.  What is it about that vision of an artist that you find important?

I’m against excess; I don’t like the excesses of fame, the excesses of mediatisation, or the excesses of money.  I find all of that dangerous. To me, even if you are really psychologically strong, success and fame can complicate your creative process. =I have the impression that we are very good in moments of survival, and because an artisan writes to live, the content they create is better quality. If there’s a moment that we no longer need to write to live because we have lots of money in our bank accounts, and become ensnared in publicity, fashion, and fame, it becomes complicated. For me, my priorities in life are my freedom and music.  I have the impression those two things are incompatible with enormous success.

It’s interesting that you note your freedom and music as being important, since you have a subsidiary, Château Perdu Records, within your record label.  Is its purpose to release your own music in the future, or is there a plan to release projects by other artists who’ll be signed to the label?

In the future, if there’s money in this structure and I can finance the recordings of other artists I would like that a lot, because I imagine it to be very interesting to do production work as well.  It’s not for right now, but in the same way that I adore organizing soirées as I often do in Paris, where I invite lots of people who are like family to me, I would love to welcome people onto my label. 

Before my last question, I would like to ask about your time in Montreal.  How did you spend your time in the city?

So, today I walked down all of St-Laurent on foot, because I’m staying in a hotel called Le Dix, so I was able to see the paradise of thrift shops and vintage clothes.  I also saw Chinatown, because I went down to the river.  In fact, I can see that it’s a city where I’d really like to live, because there’s space and lots of young people. I was at a place where there was a thrift shop, coffee shop, and restaurant. There are places like this that are a bit like hybrids, and I find it really nice.

Lastly, what moment in your career are you most proud of?

Next week I’ll be playing in a very big hall in Paris that fits more than a thousand seats, called Le Cigale. For an indie artist like me with little means of publicity, who builds momentum by word of mouth, to fill out a venue like that, is very special. I tell myself that out hard work and patience brought us to this moment.