Portraits of a Decade
This album gave me the opportunity to look back on all my work and research over the last ten years
Last December, Christophe Chassol performed for Cartier on the Place Vendôme with a Christmas concert alongside Lionel Sow’s Orchestre de Paris. Today, the French composer shares this unpublished piece through a Christmas album, ‘The Message of Xmas’, available on December 5th. The occasion for Say Who to meet him in his studio, exactly one year after our first interview, to look back on his year 2020, but also on a decade made of encounters, travels, discoveries and, of course, music.
This interview is the first of a digital series titled ‘Portraits of a Decade’ complementing our 10-year anniversary book out this December.
The last time we met here in your studio was exactly one year ago, just before your concert for Cartier on Place Vendôme. What made you want to turn it into a Christmas album?
I created this piece last year with Cartier for this concert in front of their store on Place Vendôme. I really enjoyed working on this project and I thought it was worth making a record of it. The Christmas album is a bit of a prerequisite when you’re a recording artist, and I’d never tried it before. Since the project came about at the end of 2019, it also gave me the opportunity to look back on the last ten years, on all my work and research. I was able to put in this twenty-minute piece all the techniques of self-sampling – a technique I have been developing since the 2000s – from minimalist composition techniques inspired by Steve Reich or Terry Riley, to gradual processes of transformation… I’ve also used my technique of ‘ultrascore’: I harmonized an excerpt of Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas wishes, from which I extracted a melody to make it sing to the choir of the Orchestre de Paris conducted by Lionel Sow.
The cover is very funny. What was the inspiration behind it?
It represents this fantasy of the 1960s and 1970s ‘Christmas Special’ album covers of American artists. We copied it from a magazine called Ebony in which we could see, for example, Marvin Gaye dressed as Santa Claus. This time around, it’s not music that starts with an image, but it calls up a lot of images. One of the tracks, called ‘Sweet Jesus’, is actually one of my student works that dates back to when I was studying at Berklee College of Music in 2002. I never got the recording because my professor kept it! Today, I’m very happy to finally have it re-recorded.
Does Christmas culture have a special meaning for you?
The music associated with Christmas is part of my culture of learning orchestration. I have listened a lot to Barbra Streisand and Baccara and I love listening to the arrangements of French horns that bring the warmth of the fireplace in contrast with the harshness of winter.
Does the album come with a film, like you usually do?
Not this one, on the other hand we just released my latest album “Ludi” as a movie! We released the album last March, just before lockdown in France, so just in time for me to promote it and give a few concerts. Only the people who came to see me perform it live were able to see the film because it was not available otherwise. Today, it’s being streamed on my site, and I’m very happy about that, because the public had only seen half of it until today! As a result, we understand the music of the whole album better.
How did you experience the year 2020 as a creative person?
Lockdown went rather well for me because I had been able to promote my record just before, and I also wanted to take a little break. But it was also difficult knowing the untenable situations it created for a lot of people. I immersed myself in my work, and I was with my family. In the end, I did a lot of things: I sorted all my hard drives, I found a lot of old work, ideas that I had put on hold, I worked a lot on harmonizing stand-up artists, birds… I did a cover of a Stephen Sondheim song from the musical ‘Company’, ‘(Not) Getting Married Today’, with my friend Ala.ni. I also composed the music for a short film, ‘Vanilla’. And I practiced piano a lot, which is always good!
Your work relies a lot on collaboration with other artists. How did you keep this collaborative aspect remotely?
As I was saying, I recorded this cover of Sondheim with Ala.ni, and I worked with my usual team remotely: my sound engineer Renaud Thill created the mix, my drummer Mathieu Edward created the beat, Ala.ni was on vocals, my manager Boris did the subtitles, and Etienne Gueriaux, who is the editor with whom I did ‘Ludi’, edited the images.
What are you listening to right now?
Every week, I give a review for France Musique, so I’m immersing myself in a different artist each time. These days, I’m listening to Guillaume Connesson, my favorite French artist. It is symphonic music a la John Adams, with vitality, humor and brilliant orchestrations. I always listen to a lot of classical Indian music as well. Lately, I’ve been immersed in the work of David Shire, a film music composer I didn’t know well, and I’m discovering film soundtracks from the 70s, especially ‘The Taking of Pelham 123’, which had a remake with Denzel Washington. I also listen a lot to ASAP Rocky, especially ‘Angels’, a track from his first album.
What projects are you working on at the moment ?
I’m preparing a film for the city of Brussels, and a fashion show soundtrack for a major brand… I’m also preparing a piece around birds for the Musée d’Orsay for an exhibition on nature and science entitled “The Origins of the World”.
You said at the beginning of the interview that the project with Cartier made you look back on the last ten years. What’s your take on the evolution of the cultural scene, particularly in Paris, since 2010?
It is quite paradoxical. I feel like it is like swimming in Babylon, but at the same time I think that a lot of things remain open. I’ve traveled quite a bit during this decade, and for a long time I considered London to be THE true international crossroads, and finally I realize that Paris has seen a lot of movement, too.
What have been the most crucial events of these ten years for you?
For me, Obama’s re-election, gay marriage, the migration crisis… But maybe the most important event will remain the #METOO movement, because it initiated a real paradigm shift. We saw something changing in people’s psyche. Environmental protection has become crucial over the last ten years, as well as people’s awareness of it.
And in music?
I’ve seen innovation in rap music with people like Kendrick Lamar. With the rise of Netflix and the mass production of films and series, I have seen a change in film music. I find it much better in the last five years than anything I’ve heard since the late 1980s. I feel like there is a new freedom compared to the usual big studios. It is in these two fields that I have found the most innovation.
Who’s the person of the decade for you?
In France, I would say Christiane Taubira, not only for fighting for gay marriage but also for the way she responded to insults and the outpouring of hatred.
Have you been out a lot in the last few years? When you went out, what was your favorite place to go to?
I went out a lot from 2010 to 2016, and then something happened in my life that changed everything: I had a child! Before that, I used to go out very late at night, and I often went to the Karlsbrau brewery after passing by the Tambour, on Rue Montmartre. You could see all kinds of people there: freaks, bourgeois, etc. That’s where I wrote the ideas for my albums, and I was there almost every night.
Do you have party anecdotes you still cherish today?
I haven’t stopped touring since 2007, and it’s true that I have a lot of anecdotes, notably one of my tours in India. The last concert of the tour took place in the Jodhpur desert, at a seven-hour drive from any civilization. I played there under a full moon at midnight and ended up doing a DJ set in the dunes. I lost my cell phone there on the very last night. Much to my surprise, someone gave it back to me two days later, in Paris, in Denfert-Rochereau!
At the end of the day, how would you describe the last ten years?
Ten busy years, exotic because I traveled a lot, a decade rich in encounters. Quite fascinating questions about music. For me it was also five albums and many collaborations, I worked with American artists like Solange or Frank Ocean. It was a very fast time, brutal even!
2020 is also our tenth anniversary… What is Say Who to you?
Ah! Say Who can help you avoid the embarrassment of not recognizing someone you should know! In fact, for me, Say Who is like a deluxe Post-it!
Interview: Maxime Der Nahabédian
Portraits: Jean Picon