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“Tell me what you’re thinking,” sang Autre Ne Veut on Tell Me, the opening track of his self-titled debut album released last summer. The Brooklyn-based artist likes to get close, to open up, to get so intimate that it borders on uncomfortable. Released on Olde English Spelling Bee, ‘Autre Ne Veut’ was a towering debut, red-eyed and indignant. He wailed through ten songs, through ten outpourings, with a voice so screwed-up, so high, so don’t-fuck-with-me-right-now primal that you couldn’t help but get it: this is a guy letting go. The synth pop backdrop provided spongy relief, a surface to spring back from, a buoyancy to frame the frayed emotions. Take Emotional. A sliver over two minutes, it’s the most simplistic – naïve even – sketch of a song, and it’s sung through a veil of mucus, that nasal tone that follows tears. When we’re upset, we repeat refrains, trying to hold onto what it is we feel to make it real, not just for the other person but also for ourselves. Emotional repeats “I’m emotional / I’ve got feelings in my heart / that set me apart / I’m emotional” until the fade to grey.
The appeal of ‘Autre Ne Veut’ was the wide-open-ness of it: that’s not just his heart on his sleeve but his bloody, twisted entrails too. There’s a vicarious pleasure to be grasped for there, a glorious release-by-proxy. Getting to a place when you can let it out, rid yourself of that which churns inside to experience the relief of liberation through articulation, of nailing a feeling, giving it form, birthing it.
Now he’s back with a new EP – ‘Body’ on Hippos In Tanks – that’s altogether more overt, defiant, sexual. From the cocky pout of Your Clothes (listen above) to the 5am neediness of Just Return, these are the songs that the old pop guard would have launched their career with before sliding into balladry. Autre Ne Veut doesn’t care for linearity. He talks of being a curator of his own work – that his job is to wade through the wealth of music he creates daily to pick out and shape the releases, to find a collection of work. His idea of anonymity is also traditionally back-to-front: his face is visible in his performances yet he hides his name.
Of course, it’s in performance that the music of Autre Ne Veut truly lives, something he shares with his contemporaries How To Dress Well and John Maus. There’s that letting go, that voicing of the things that usually go unsaid, that expression akin to exorcism. It’s extreme and it provokes an extreme reaction; he jokes that his live show is like “that Terry Richardson coffee table book or maybe it’s the Orlan one. If nothing else, it’s a conversation starter.”
We chatted over email a couple of weeks ago.
There is something very instinctive about ‘Body’ – it’s so much more instant than your debut album. Could you tell me about the making of it?
Autre Ne Veut: Well, this whole project was born of trying to make music on a purely instinctual level. However, what the project is on a personal level, and what it is in terms of public consumption are two different things. I make a lot of music. All of the time. For better or worse it’s the only compulsive thing that I do. The rest of life is work.
So ANV for me is very much driven by instinct. On the other hand, what is actually released is more of a curatorial project. These particular songs felt like they belonged together as a little statement. After choosing them I reworked the vocals, added some minor parts, tightened things up and then went back into the mixes with Al Carlson to beef them up and get them to work side by side a bit better. So in a sense the process was actually less immediate than on the record.
So is it a case of only seeing a theme or motif when you step back to curate a collection to release?
Autre Ne Veut: Well, it’s a bit more like making a mix tape out of my own demos. I feel like releases should be creative statements, beginning to end with some sort of logic behind them. However, the themes may not necessarily be concrete. For instance, the first record was designed to be an introduction to Autre Ne Veut. That’s why a track like Emotional made the cut, because in a way it’s like handing somebody a business card. As a curator, you’re working backwards, picking themes out of the past to tell a story or paint a picture, or whatever non-musical metaphor you want to use.
What is the statement you’re making with ‘Body’? And how did the cover art come about?
Autre Ne Veut: The theme of ‘Body’ is just that: corporeal expressions of our visceral experiences. The cover art was created by Alex Gitman as the result of an extended conversation that we had, and I feel like it really gets to the heart of what aspect of the body I’m trying to access. A type of body experience which is as sensual, beautiful and tender as it is overwhelming and grotesque. But to create this sense without the tropes of penetration was also a concern.
Just Return and Your Clothes in particular make me think of Prince’s If I Was Your Girlfriend and Strange Relationship – in that desire to satisfy.
Autre Ne Veut: The drum sounds on Just Return are very If I Was Your Girlfriend, but I rarely intentionally steal specific parts or melodic ideas from such obvious reference points. Your Clothes was an attempt at Free Your Mind-era En Vogue with a Don’t Let Go sound set, obviously that didn’t work out. You know, I love Prince, but I’d much rather be able to sing like Patti LaBelle.
I liked what you said in your Altered Zones interview about Autre Ne Veut being a chance to explore “inappropriate emotive behaviour”. Is that part of it?
Autre Ne Veut: What I said about “inappropriate emotive behavior” has more to do with a very mundane working world that I’ve been part of. The social politics of the working world are amazingly complicated and over time can feel like an immense psychological burden. I always wished that the workplace had more space for brief dance parties and positive emotional behavior. I kind of get why we don’t need a bunch of people walking around pissed off in the office, but sincerely overwhelmed by the voice of Aaron Neville on the fifteenth repeat of “Tell It Like It Is” in a way where you just want to scream? There’s no place for that unless you work for Google or something. But even that pogo-stick and mini-golf culture of the “fun” workplace sounds kind of forced.
“I’ve always been attracted to the voice as this privileged instrument that we all carry around with us. Sexy music and soulful singing regardless of genre has always been a preference.” – Autre Ne Veut
Over the last year or so there has been a resurgence of white men exploring soul and/or R&B – yourself, How To Dress Well, d’Eon, James Blake. Have you always been drawn to soul? What does it mean to you?
Autre Ne Veut: I’ve always been attracted to the voice as this privileged instrument that we all carry around with us. Sexy music and soulful singing regardless of genre has always been a preference. Soul and R&B have a lot of that. Ultimately, I don’t think I’m actually making R&B, I’m just making music that isn’t afraid to include R&B in the mix. I think the politics of cultural appropriation are important, however I’m not sure that this new blue-eyed movement is really isolated in time (Jamie Lidell, Skeletons) nor exclusively blue-eyed (Weeknd, Blood Orange, Toro y moi). There’s definitely a cultural exchange going on, one that’s been happening in popular forms throughout the history of American music.
What do you do when you’re not working on Autre Ne Veut? Can you see a time when you’d be focused entirely on music? Is that something you’d want?
Autre Ne Veut: Music is what I’m focusing on right now. It’s a strange feeling.
Having watched some of your shows on video, it’s clear you give your all. Is performing live a release/liberating?
Autre Ne Veut: I used to go to karaoke to get these types of kicks, now I don’t as much anymore.
Did music play a big part in your childhood? What’s your first musical memory?
Autre Ne Veut: Music was always around, but it was mostly my doing. I remember my little sister getting mad at me for singing the guitar parts and not the words.
“I used to go to karaoke to get these types of kicks, now I don’t as much anymore.” – Autre Ne Veut
What does pop music mean to you?
Autre Ne Veut: I think that it implies an attempt to produce easy music in a way. Music for the lowest common denominator. However the craft of producing pop music is strange because it’s always the song that’s just a little bit off that tends to touch people the most. My music is informed by that tradition, but I fear it’s more than just a little bit off.
What instruments/equipment do you use to make your music and why?
Autre Ne Veut: These first two releases were both made with software synths and Pro Tools. Obviously there are a bunch of vocals (excluding Not the One on ‘Body’, all mine) that are cut up and otherwise. This was initially entirely a function of access and workflow, it’s much easier to get ideas out there when you don’t have to switch out a ton of cables I’ve started to get into hardware a bit more, but honestly, after hanging out while my records were getting mixed, I’ve gotten more excited about high-end outboard gear like character compressors, EQs and mic preamps. This is the stuff that every engineer knows about, but kind of gets glossed over on the musician side of things. Unfortunately the price tags on it are not to be scoffed at, so my collection is growing at a snail’s pace.
Who is the vocalist on Not The One? Do you have plans to work more with other vocalists on your new album? Any duets?
Autre Ne Veut: There are a couple tracks on the upcoming LP that have other vocalists. One of them could be construed as duet. She Woolf is singing with me on Not The One and currently with me on tour. She’s not on the upcoming record however.
Please could you describe the place you write and record?
Autre Ne Veut: Well, thus far, because my setup is so compact, I’ve written/recorded wherever I’ve been for extended stretches of time since about 2005. One was a small, sunny room adjacent the the living room of my apartment in Chicago when I lived there for a short spell, then I recorded Drama Cum Drama and Soldier in my mom’s living room, then in a room adjacent to my living room in Brooklyn, now I’m working out of my bedroom in a different apartment in Brooklyn. Oh, and last summer, I recorded a bunch of songs in the basement of a mansion that I was house sitting.
What drives you to create?
Autre Ne Veut: You know, I’m really not sure. I don’t want to overstate it. I’ve found that I’m not as happy without it. It’s certainly cathartic.
You’ve been making music as Autre Ne Veut for some years now yet your album only came out last year. Why is that?
Autre Ne Veut: Probably because there was no market for weirdo synth-driven pop with R&B overtones in 2005. Honestly, until fairly recently, only a few people had heard my tracks, and those that had couldn’t do anything with them. When Dan sent them to Todd, I’d just relegated music to the role of important-but-auxiliary, for after work hours.
“I’m having this Bone Thugs moment right now, and I’ve very recently decided to spend time pursuing music more seriously, but it’s kind of terrifying.” – Autre Ne Veut
For some anonymity means not being recognised, but for you the focus seems to be on your name. What is the appeal of anonymity for you?
Autre Ne Veut: Eh, there’ s actually very little appeal for me. It feels more like a necessary evil. Currently, I have this unbelievable opportunity to make music and have a handful of people seem to really care about what I’m doing. On the other hand, I’ve been working my ass off on other academic and professional pursuits that are the result of a more intentional decision process. So I’m having this Bone Thugs moment right now, and I’ve very recently decided to spend time pursuing music more seriously, but it’s kind of terrifying. Ultimately, if it doesn’t work out, I want to be able to pick up where I left off, willy nilly, not having to explain a bunch of weird dance moves to my future employers. Nothing really works like that, but it’s my attempt to preserve options. I guess my name is this bizarre symbol of an exit strategy.
From over here, the New York music scene right now feels alive with ideas, with exploration, discussion. Does it feel like that there? Are there places/venues that you feel that are instrumental in cultivating this?
Autre Ne Veut: I’m torn here between elevating the mythology and telling my truth. I will say that I think that there is a lot of exciting stuff happening in New York, however that’s the nature of the town. It’s the place that people come to if they want to find communities of creative folk. It’s the way that New York has always been. I’m not sure that there are specific venues for me, but I’m the minority social-alien here. I talk to Todd of OESB about music, Dan and Joel, some friends that are journalists. However, I do hope somebody out there is having the magical experience that you’re getting at.
Surrender [above] is one of my favourite tracks from Ford & Lopatin’s Channel Pressure. That’s you, right? Do you have more plans to collaborate with them or anyone else?
Autre Ne Veut: That’s me. I do have plans to work with F&L, what exactly this will look like is up in the air. Also throwing around some ideas with Chris Madak who makes music as Bee Mask.
What are you working on right now? Is there anything in particular that is inspiring you?
Autre Ne Veut: I have a number of exciting projects right now, actually. I’m working in a production role with an engineer friend of mine on a couple like-minded solo-projects. And I’m writing songs in a more traditional sense, for a project with Ford & Lopatin. Also, in the mixing phase of my next LP, so, I’m keeping busy. Right now, trying to think of ways to blend the ideas of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Hejira’ with Yazoo and Oukast is what’s most inspiring musically.
What can we expect from the next LP?
Autre Ne Veut: The next LP will be with OESB. I’m not sure that it will feel like a surprising record, but I’ll let the rest of the details remain one (a surprise).
And finally, what are your dreams for Autre Ne Veut?
Autre Ne Veut: I’d love to produce full records for other people. Singers mostly. I’d like to collaborate with artists in different mediums to produce larger scale sculptural performances. I want to take dance classes. But honestly, I feel like I’m living this childhood dream right now. I definitely have a sense of wanting more, but it’s such a weird feeling to be here right now, answering these questions. I guess I’m afraid that if I ask too much the whole thing will just burst.