A Touch of Grace
Insolence, irreverence and subversion attract me more than rebellion and struggle
Arthur Teboul, the singer-songwriter for the group Feu ! Chatterton, is among those artists for whom every word, every gesture, is elegant. The group’s latest album Palais d’Argile is festive, but it takes a stance as well, questioning the inner workings of a digitally inundated world. Navigating between a sense of wonder, melancholy and self-derision, Arthur talks like he writes: with existential depth and a subtly poetic style.
How did you get through 2020?
My personality is paradoxical: when everything is fine, I worry over details, and when things are not going well, I end up putting things into perspective. It’s dangerous because sometimes I need to go through complicated situations to realize life is beautiful. I tell myself, intentionally, that joy and optimism require work. As do many other things. Such as love. It’s not just a dazzling light that shoots through you. I like what requires work, this kind of discipline.
What about Feu ! Chatterton? Did the group feel the impact?
We had some difficulties, like everybody, but I’m lucky compared to lots of musicians and technicians in my profession. When the lockdown happened, we weren’t on tour but we were a week away from the premier of a show we had put together; an original show at the Bouffes du Nord that we had worked on like crazy. All six dates were canceled. On the other hand, the timing allowed us to finish our album, without any other aim but that one.
What are your first musical memories ?
From childhood, songs were the art that seemed the most magical, in my eyes. The music was always carried by a story, by a song told in French. I was blown away by Brassens and Gainsbourg. They are very different from each another, except maybe for their playfulness. At 17, I got into Gainsbourg kind of secretively, and I have the feeling I accessed a treasure trove. What I like are the texts you have to decipher, when there are enigmas that create an understanding with the author. When I understood a play on words or an image, I felt like the singer was smiling at me. I like things that caress the mind, when you get chills, both mentally and physically. My amateurism – I’m not a musician, I spent ten years learning everything by ear – maybe preserves a form of enchantment.
What spurred you to start making music?
It’s a dream I had since childhood. But few things pointed to it as my destiny: I had prepped for HEC and then went to business school, and I had cysts on my vocal cords. When I would sing in the shower I was told to shut up. [Laughs]! Yet, when I’m on stage, I tell myself, “I knew I would be here.”
It’s almost mystical that you were able to get to exactly where you should be…
The mystical part comes with a lot of ambition, in the most noble sense of the word. It’s only from the moment you believe it’s possible that you are going to do what it takes for it to happen.
How did the group get formed?
In the beginning we were just a group of Sunday musicians. But not all Sunday groups have the desire to get really serious about what they do. In high school, Sébastien Wolf and Clément Doumic, the guitarists and main composers at the start, had a rock group. I tried rehearsing with them. They kindly made me understand that I didn’t have enough of a foundation. They kept playing and I saw them speaking this magical language. I had just one desire : to be a part of it. But it wasn’t possible at that time. I didn’t have what it took. After high school, we saw each other less, we were working hard. During those years, I wrote a lot. On Tuesday evenings I would go to Belleville where there were slam nights. That was the occasion for reciting poems a cappella on stage. It meant there were rules for writing. You had to make use of rhythm. You had to have elasticity and a playful lyrical assonance. Then one night, there was a party. Since I didn’t usually have the chance to express myself on stage, I did something really annoying [laughs]: while the music was playing, I asked if I could read a text. Clément was there and told me I had made a lot of progress with the rhythm. We had all just gotten out of our prep classes, and we wanted to start rehearsing together again. That’s how it happened. Since then I have learned to distance myself from the text. The music helps free yourself of pure textual constraints: the text will be inhabited by melody.
Do you really consider yourself an amateur?
Let’s say that in the beginning, you really couldn’t be a snob to do music with me. Can you Imagine a guy arriving and doing any old thing ? Maybe with a certain style, sure… otherwise they’d never have kept me, but still ! They liked my texts but it was tiring for them, because I lacked the musical lingo… I said things to them like, “this chord, it could be ‘bluer’ or ‘dustier’” [laughs]. Fortunately, we were borne away by the same mystique. Nevertheless musical syntax is an essential tool.
Since then, you developed a truly technical approach to music?
I didn’t have a choice. Without it I’d have no legitimacy. And I have a voice that cracks very quickly after several concerts. I was advised to go to the Studio des Variétés [a musical training center]. There I met David Féron, who is my voice coach today. He’s a specialist of “saturated” voices, meaning metal and hard rock singers. It requires incredible technique. And singing is a profession that’s all about the body. It’s not at all what I imagined, with my approach coming from the text. I thought I was a head without a body. In fact you have to be a kind of athlete. I have fun exploring my body, like it’s one more instrument. But you have to be careful: you can get lost in purely exploring technique. Whatever our technique, we will always be below the level of mastery of the instrument. That’s how we keep progressing.
Your great mastery of the language and of writing is striking, and it stands out in contrast to the current musical landscape. Does your love of words come more from music than literature?
I’m very inspired by poetry and literature, but my love of the language came through songs. I was duped by a certain misunderstanding at first : I thought that a song was actually a good text put to music. I no longer think this, at all. It’s another form! I’d never have written certain lines had they been destined for paper. In fact it’s the form that supports the lines. They burst open with the melody.
What’s your writing process like?
I have lots of notebooks for jotting down bits of texts. This allows me to have a foundation. Improvising a text is too hard. In any case it’s not my thing. There is a collective effort – making songs – and, for me, a solitary one – writing. It is filled with anxiety, but it’s also the one I do to the utmost. I’m relieved when I write something that I’m happy with. I mentioned being serious… Well, I like this idea of professionalism. It’s noble. You do it every day. As a craft. It puts food on the table. It’s the necessity that gives it a patina, something special. Very often I have to divert attention from myself so that the work stays fun. The risk would be to lose the innocence of it. I’m theorizing but the answer could be, “I just have to do it” Then once the texts are put to music, it’s a liberation. There’s something wilder, something instinctive.
You worked with Arnaud Rebotini on ‘Palais d’Argile’. How did this collaborative effort go?
We had been working on our own for a while : the electronic cold wave spirit – a bit technoid – was already sketched out. We told ourselves we needed someone with rock experience, a more 1960s-70s sound, but who also had knowledge of analog synthesizers. We thought about it for a long time, because it was wrenching to no longer be working with Samy Osta, who had produced all our albums up until then. Then when we thought of Arnaud, it made perfect sense. He cleverly hired Boris Wilsdorf, a German sound engineer who worked with the precision of jeweler. Together they helped us a lot to mix the various elements. For the frequency and timber of my voice, there are high notes where there are a lot of other instruments playing. Arnaud helped us have a voice and an instrument at the same level, ensuring they didn’t blend together, or that one didn’t drown out the other.
Your last album deals with the hyper-digitalization of human relations. What’s your take on all that?
That makes me laugh, because these days I’m learning humility. You have to be careful not to give lessons. I say that because I wrote all these texts about the power of screens in our lives, and ever since the album came out, I have become a community manager. I spend my time on social networks [laughter] ! To tell the truth I find more joy in it than I thought. Joking aside, what worries me is that the digital tool is not neutral. It is shaped by people who have particular intentions. Everyone knows this : the aim is to capture attention to sell ads. So we all put up with a tool that could really be more beautiful and fulfilling. The idea of sharing images, sentences and sounds through messaging is wonderful. It isn’t in contradiction with getting together for real. What’s upsetting is that when you want to benefit from this usage, you’re diverted. And being aware of the stratagem doesn’t liberate us. So, it’s a drug. But I am ready to fight, including with the weapons of the enemy. I’m going to become intoxicated, but I’m also going to find unexpected moments of joy. Insolence, irreverence and subversion attract me more than rebellion and struggle. To subvert the rules, you have to experience them, know them. You have to suspend your judgment to know which rules you want to play by.
Do you worry about our future, as a generation?
I’m naturally prone to worry and anxiety. I live opposite a cemetery! In reality, it’s a beautiful symbol, because what do we see? Nothing but beautiful big trees that were able to grow in the heart of the city. In fact we say it on the album: “Là-bas, espère ce qui t’attend, c’est sous l’hiver que couve le printemps » [In Laissons Filer, ndlr]. The hegemony of screens in ours lives makes us lose focus. That’s the first observation. But once it is stated, what should we do? Find the things that wake us up. These are simple things: love, the elements, a certain form of transcendence … In the mud of all wars, most of the time flowers grow back. I’ve been down this road myself! I have a lot of melancholy. Rather than sadly watching the beauty of a flower knowing it will wilt, I contemplate its beauty. And by the simple fact that it wilts, I’m overjoyed. But before it becomes alive inside of oneself, there’s work to do. It’s a discipline. Sometimes you have to force it. But I am sure that we can bring about beauty if we put our minds to it.
Things are opening up again little by little. What’s the year ahead looking like for Feu ! Chatterton?
We’re going on tour, at last. We’re doing all the summer festivals and we have about forty dates in France, Switzerland and Belgium. We have also composed thirteen songs for Noémie Lvovsky’s next film, a musical with Denis Podalydès, Judith Chemla and Sergi Lopez.
Photos : Jean Picon
Arthur wears footwear by Solovière