On his fourth solo album, much as in Oh! (2020), the French composer, pianist and vocalist follows his ongoing exploration of the crossroads between poetry and songs, piano and synth, old-time verses and contemporary sounds. Inspired by the rhythms, effects and speech patterns of urban music, he also delivers, with a warm and moving voice, the texts of three poetesses from the past.
Since 2013, Ezéchiel Pailhès has been crafting a unique French synth pop. On his first three albums, he switched between songs inspired by poetry, instrumental ballads and electronica with hummed choruses. This latest record is a collection of eleven new songs, two of which he wrote: “Opaline” and “Ni toi, ni moi” (neither you nor me). The others are adaptations of poems written in the 16th, 18th and 19th centuries by French poetesses Louise Labé (1524-1566), Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (1786-1859) and Renée Vivien (1877-1909).
Poetesses from the past…
From classical music to songs, poetry adaptation is an old French tradition. “My universe has always embraced the musicality of this literary genre,” the artist recalls. He actually started this project in 2017 with poems and sonnets by William Shakespeare, Pablo Neruda, Victor Hugo and above all Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, who can be heard again on songs such as “Dors-tu?” (Are you sleeping?), “Élégie” or “L’attente” (The wait). A figure of romanticism, the author left her mark on the early 19th century through the quality of her texts and her formal inventions, particularly praised by Balzac, and apparently a decisive influence on Verlaine and Baudelaire. “Marceline’s poetry is very musical,” says Ezéchiel admiringly. “Her use of rhythm and repetition sounds great and takes on a new perspective when set to music. In fact, she wrote some of her texts with singing in mind.”
“Ces longs secrets dont l’amour nous accuse,
Viens-tu les rompre en songe à mes genoux ?
Dors-tu, ma vie ! ou rêves-tu de moi ?”
“These long secrets for which love accuses us,
Do you come to my knees to break them in a dream?
Are you sleeping, my life! or do you dream of me”
(“Dors-tu ?”, after “Les pleurs” (the tears), 1833)
Besides her, we find the more famous, and rebellious, Renée Vivien, whose texts inspired three songs, “Regard en arrière” (Looking backwards), “Mélopée” (Melopoeia) and “La fille de la nuit” (The night girl). Sometimes nicknamed “Sapho 1900”, this figure of lesbian culture and, more broadly, of female genius, combined in her work the themes of desire, dreams, melancholy and the relationship with nature.
“Ta forme est un éclair
Ton sourire est l’instant
Tu fuis, lorsque l’appel
T’implore, ô mon Désir !”
“Your shape is a spark of lightning
Your smile, the very moment
You flee, when the calling
Begs you, O my Desire!”
(After “Parle-moi, de ta voix pareille à l’eau courante” (Speak to me, with a voice like flowing waters)
and “Ta forme est un éclair” (Your shape is a spark of lightning), Renée Vivien, 1901)
Lastly, with “Tant que mes yeux” (As long as my eyes), Ezéchiel was inspired by a 1555 poem by Renaissance poet Louise Labé, whose main topic explored female love, physical and spiritual desire, and the torments and pains they generate.
” At the start of the project “, Ezéchiel continues, ” I was interested in many poets, men and women, past and present, before my selection was narrowed down to these three female authors. Their works, often written in difficult or secret conditions, express a raging romanticism, a passionate soul, fuelled by desperate and tormented love. I found it interesting, as a man coming from another world and time, to face this otherness, to trade viewpoints. Obviously, I could loudly claim that the album was the result of a concept, that it reflects today’s world, and that it allows me to explore the notion of gender, giving visibility to the work of a few women, while at the same time pairing these ancient texts with a more modern and rhythmic music, and obviously, there is some truth in that. But more than anything, I wanted to serve the text itself, to express the emotion and connection I felt with these works.”
Today’s rhythms and prosody…
Ezéchiel Pailhès combines texts from French literature with electronic music, its effects and rhythms, as well as a form of scansion that echoes rap, R&B or the current fusion between hip hop and pop, which is part of our musical background and that of younger generations. “I wanted to cross-reference texts from the beginning of the century with this type of music. I wanted to use today’s techniques to tell the tale of different daily lives and experiences.
The album is thus marked by contemporary electronic orchestrations, in which he drops his favourite instrument, the piano, and his digital collage technique to use more extensive synth melodies, enhanced by drum machines, bringing a gentle and bright vibe to the romantic texts. Lastly, we can hear slight digital tones of Auto-Tune, which Ezéchiel uses sparingly and inventively.
Beyond its sophistication, the term “melopoeia” means a “sung declamation”, a “recitative song”, sometimes interpreted in a monotonous way. On this album, it could also refer to a sense of phrasing, which does not come from rap, but rather from jazz, Ezéchiel’s first love. ” In the past, I tried to hide my jazz culture, but it naturally came back on this new album, as can be heard, for instance, in Regard en arrière.” With its verses anchored in our literary memory, the following track “Mélopée”, perfectly illustrates the album’s vision. It manages to transcend eras, mixing past romanticism with a modern prosody, fuelled by the nonchalance of hip hop and the warm chords of jazz.
“Qu’un hasard guide enfin mon désespoir tranquille
Vers l’eau d’une oasis ou les berges d’une île,
Où je puisse dormir, mon voyage accompli,
Dans la sécurité profonde de l’oubli”
“May chance guide my quiet sorrow, at last
To the water of an oasis, the shores of an island,
Where I may sleep, having traveled my way,
In the safe depths of oblivion”.
(After “Sillages” (Trails), René Vivien, 1908)