Stromae, A Sensation on American Shores with Flashy Francophile Pop
Last month at SXSW, the city of Austin was plastered in posters asking, “Who the hell is Stromae?” For every person in America who’s wondering that, there’s an army of European fans who have turned the Belgian-born artist into a veritable superstar. Also known as Paul Van Haver, Stromae first made a splash in the francophone world with his pulsing 2009 single “Alors On Danse,” which became a number one hit across the continent and also caught the attention of Kanye, whose remix of the track appears on the international version of debut album Cheese. Its 2013 follow-up Racine Carrée took him to new heights–at the time of this writing, the video for lead single “Papaoutai” has more than 248 million views on YouTube–encapsulating a nuanced, emotive pop vision that also includes plenty of thumping dance bangers. Though Stromae isn’t quite a household name yet, his international audience is growing far past the French-speaking expat crowd, and his clothing line Mosaert became available worldwide for the first time this spring. We sat down with the singer/rapper last month at SXSW, and again recently in New York City, ahead of his triumphant appearances at Coachella. Read on for Stromae’s thoughts on inspiration, MC Escher, performing French songs in America, and using the Internet way too much.
I saw you play yesterday afternoon at the FADER Fort with just a DJ, but from what I understand, you also played with a full band later that night.
Yeah, at Stubb’s BBQ for NPR, it was more like a showcase. That was a full show, but it’s not just about technical things, it’s about music, not special effects and stuff. It was good to be back with the essentials.
Do you feel like there’s more pressure on you when you’re doing these low-key shows?
Yeah, at the beginning, it was exactly the same. I was performing with my manager as a DJ, because we didn’t have a DJ at the time, and I forgot how exhausting it was yesterday. I remember how it was without the [other] musicians. You realize that when you’re onstage with them, you can share the energy. It was so difficult for me to breathe after the [solo] performance, I was like, “Okay, just be quiet, because I don’t know if you’ll still be alive at the end of the performance.” You know when you’re too anxious, too stressed, you put so much energy and [it was] too much. I saw the performance and I was okay, but onstage, I was almost dying.
When you talk about the beginning, how long ago do you mean?
At the beginning the first album, with Alors On Danse, that was four, five years ago. I was performing at clubs. That was a good school for me, after that, we had to go on another level, with musicians, trying to give something interesting. Not just a microphone and telling people to put their hands in the air, it’s about telling a story on stage.
That visual aspect is clearly important to you. How have you seen your aesthetic change over the years?
Maybe the word I prefer now is minimalism, maybe geometric stuff, like you see here. (Gestures to printed shirt.) A big influence is MC Escher, who did the impossible geometric things, also some African prints. For the next project, I would love to [add] another influence into the mix.
Any idea of what that next influence might be?
I don’t know, maybe Bolivian outfits, really nice Mexican blankets. There are so many things to discover.
What you’re wearing now is from your clothing line, which is coming out in the U.S. now.
Yes, before now, it was only in Europe. Now it’s going to be available worldwide, which is cool.
How did you get start getting involved with clothing?
In the beginning, it was just for me, for the video clips and performances. Then we started wondering, “Maybe we can release something, maybe we can sell something.” But at the beginning, it was just for me, like you see in the clip for “Papaoutai,” “Tous Les Mêmes.” It was just for me.
Were you just designing what you would want to wear?
I could not say I’m a designer, I’m just an A&R in this project. The fashion designer, that’s her job, and she’s more responsible in this project. I can give advice, but she knows all the details.
Compared to what you were wearing yesterday, I see you produce a lot of the same items in different color palettes.
Exactly. We release different capsules, the first one was for the visuals for “Papaoutai” and “Tous Les Mêmes” with the hearts and stuff, the second one was with this kind of (pastel) pattern. The second one was with this kind of pattern, and the next one will be a different one you haven’t seen before. We try to have distance between the Stromae project and the Mosaert project, which are still connected, but we’re just trying to make them live alone in different [contexts]. That’s what we’re trying to do, and the next one will be released in June, I hope.
Now that your international fanbase has been expanding so much, what do you hope that listeners get out of your music even if they don’t speak French?
Whatever they want, actually. That’s not my decision, it’s pretentious to say, “I want you to pay attention to this or to this.” My music is mine when I’m alone in the studio. When my sound engineer listens to it, it’s his song as well, or when my brother or my manager listens to it. It’s the same with other people, it’s not mine anymore. If people want to listen to it just for dancing, it’s okay. If it’s for the lyrics, it’s okay. If it’s for both, it’s okay.
Your songs are often about heavy subjects, but seem like lighter dance songs on the surface. What do you like about that contrast?
I think it’s because I can’t make a decision. Who decides if a song has to be completely happy or completely sad? We can do both. I think life is exactly like this, it’s not only happiness or sadness, it’s both at the same time. That’s why I love the word “melancholy,” because that’s the best definition of life, I think.
What inspires the characters in your songs?
Our lives. For example, in “Formidable,” there was a homeless guy in the street, and he said to my ex-girlfriend and me, “Do you think you’re beautiful?” and he was screaming on the street, [very disheveled], like the worst you can imagine. Everyone was looking at him, he’s very famous in the street, and everyone knows him in Brussels. We were just walking in front of him, and he said, “Do you think you’re beautiful?” He was very true to say that, who am I to look at him and think what I’m thinking? Of course he knew what we were thinking, and I used the exact sentence in my song. We could say exactly the same sentence, when you’re just in the worst situation of your life, and the problem is not alcohol or drugs, it’s just that you’re sad. Anyone could be in the same situation and could say, “Do you think you’re more beautiful than me? Because you’re married, because you have children, it’s just a good period in your life?” Be careful, actually.
You’ve also said you might take several more years before you put out another album. Is that still the plan?
Yeah, after touring. People didn’t understand what I wanted to mean. I was saying that after touring, I would take a break, but everybody does. When you’re touring, it’s priceless to be alone, and I need to be alone. It’s so difficult sometimes when you’re on tour and all the time with somebody. It’s so important to be alone and focus on what you think and what you want, process all those feelings. I’m trying to compose now, but without thinking about the next album. I don’t want to have too much pressure, I’m just composing.
Have you seen a difference in how people react to different songs in different places?
The big difference I can notice is that people are more expressive in the U.S. than in Belgium. I think that French people are more expressive than Belgian people, but people in the U.S. are so positive and there’s something positive you can feel onstage. It’s really funny to see people singing the songs that you understand that they don’t understand. That’s really nice, it’s the same when American singers come to Europe and we’re [singing along], but we’re singing nothing. It’s just about music and sonorities that interest us.
So much French music is also in English.
Yes, you’re right. If it’s for a good reason, that’s okay, but sometimes it’s for marketing reasons and I don’t think it’s a good idea or the best solution. Sometimes it’s genuine because it’s the language that you’re the most sincere and spontaneous in, and that’s a good reason, I think. But if it’s just because the biggest market is the U.S.–I cannot say it’s ridiculous–but that’s not the best reason. Maybe in 10 years I could sing in English, but right now my English is not good enough. If I could become more spontaneous in English, I could write in English, but that’s not the case right now.
You just had the new video come out for “Carmen,” which is an interesting look at how we use social media. How did that come about?
Thanks to a French rapper, his name is Orelsan, he wrote the scenario with Sylvain Chomet and he helped me to finish some tracks on the album, this one and “Ave Cesaria.” In the studio, two years ago, he had this vision of the people on the big blue birds, and I said, “We have to realize this.” When it was time to think about the scenario, I called him again. We worked for two or three days, Sylvain Chomet, Orelsan, and myself, just trying to brainstorm. Thanks to the experience of Sylvain Chomet, he helped us to figure out how to get into it. The first idea I had was just a big race with a lot of people on the big blue birds, and we needed a real story to arrive at this point. Not a race, but this picture of everybody, the biggest Twitter accounts next to each other, trying to do the best. The end of this race is just a big mouth of this horrible big bird.
You see Obama and the Queen in the race, too.
Yeah, it was funny to put [in]. That’s the reason why I’m in this race myself, it was important to say, “I’m not judging others, I’m judging myself first.” It’s just criticism about how we can be sometimes. I criticize myself first, then others, and the system–it’s not bad, but when it’s so important to your life, to love yourself too much is bad, I think.
Do you find yourself thinking about the internet too much?
Yes, maybe not so much the internet, but I think love of yourself is too much. I’m the worst example for this, because I’m on Twitter, I’m on Facebook, I’m on Instagram. I prefer to keep an official [feed] on social media, because I cannot lie about something natural. I cannot say, “Hey, you are my friend, this is my meal, you’re in my life.” How can I pretend that people who are behind a computer are with me in my life?
So it’s about not being able to replace being with people in real life?
A bit, there are a lot of things we want to say. It’s not just one thing. The problem I have with social media–the good thing about it as well–they’re sharing good moments with the bird at the beginning, but at the end, it’s a nightmare. The face of the bird changes, it’s so nice at the beginning, it could be your friend or a friend of anybody. When it takes too much place in your life, you don’t realize that it’s just beating you.
Social media is also important to you because many people find out about your music through YouTube.
That’s the paradoxical thing, of course. I’m saying that if you use it too much, that’s the danger. It’s a bit of a moralistic story, but at the same time, I’m not against social media, I’m not against Twitter. I’m just saying to myself first, “Be careful, it’s important that you love yourself, but not too much.”
There’s a song called “Content Nausea” by a band called Parquet Courts that’s also about social media, and it has a line that says, “Life’s lived best when scrolling least.”
That’s funny, it’s almost the same, maybe a bit more radical. That’s the reason why we chose to do [the video] in animation, to have a funny way to tell it. I didn’t want to be too serious, even if the end is a bit serious and dramatic, but it’s funny because it’s more dramatic and dark and sad for adults. Children are not so shocked when they see the video, they’re like, “That’s not real life.” Sometimes, adults can be more hurt than children. I’m not so radical, it’s not like, “Be careful, Twitter is dangerous.” I’m just saying, “Yes, it could be dangerous, but let’s have some fun about it as well.”
Lastly, what is your WILD Wish?
That everyone could live naturally naked…
Retouching by Local Color NY