On August 2, 2021, I aired a short interview with the multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Colleen (Cécile Schott)
on Radio Ravioli.
Her latest album The Tunnel and the Clearing came out in May 2021 on Thrill Jockey.
You can listen to the interview on WFMU's website here.
OLIVIA: What is the best part about working on an album?
COLLEEN: So the best part of working on an album is the sensation of being given a chance to try and contribute something musical of meaning. So I guess when I say of meaning, I mean first and foremost for it to have a personal meaning. From a purely emotional point of view, I guess I always have something specific to say, due to the fact that the albums are totally rooted in my life. I think that's even more the case as I grow older.
And then being given the chance to say something musical. To see how I can go further than the last album in terms of just looking for new ways to express myself, producing my albums in a way that is more interesting or even better than the previous albums. Getting the chance to play new instruments, and in the knowledge that I do have an audience and there will be people who will listen to it, and hopefully they can gain something from it in the same way that I've gained something from so much music in my life.
OLIVIA: It's interesting to hear you say you've gotten better at it as you've gotten older. I guess it becomes a little bit easier to get more vulnerable the more you try it?
COLLEEN: Yeah, or I guess... it's not a given that an artist stays productive for many years. I think many things can counter your desire to make music. I think it's easy to not find the headspace to be productive, and I think one of the secrets is to really keep it rooted within your life, within your experiences. One thing that has become clearer to me as I've gotten older - I'm 45 now - is that life is never static. Whenever we think we're gonna stay in the same place, something happens. So in the case of this album, first of all it was delayed because I have a chronic health problem. It's a thyroid problem, and that really, really exhausted me for two years, until the doctor was able to find the right balance of the medicine I'm taking.
So first of all, I really wanted to make an album. I knew I wanted to keep it quite playful and even danceable, which would have been a first for me, but I had absolutely no energy for anything. So first it was delayed, and then COVID happened, and that was a big surprise. And then we get to the best part and the worst part - I'm anticipating your next question perhaps - which is that my longterm partner basically left me in an unexpected way. After 16 years of being together, obviously that was a huge upheaval in my life. I started work the next day on what would become the album.
So um, the new album is really the result of trying to get to grips with this new reality. And thinking, "Ok, you were supposed to make an album, so just do it, but obviously it's not going to be what you thought it was going to be." So it became this whole other process of using music to get better, to express my emotions, my sensations, and I think the best part of it was also the worst part in that it was very intense emotionally. But I think it's unique in the things I've done because it's so close to the bone. I'm really glad I went through that process.
OLIVIA: Yeah, it sounds therapeutic! (laughter) It's actually... this is a tangent... but last year in the middle of COVID I started to take singing lessons --
COLLEEN: Oh wow, ok, I just had my twentieth singing lesson today, actually.
OLIVIA: Oh really?
COLLEEN: Yeah, and I was just telling my teacher that it's been an amazing process, which I also feel is very therapeutic. Just getting over ones fear of expressing oneself. Hopefully that's also going to be something new on the next record... that I can push myself in maybe a - not necessarily a different way - but to go way further than I have. So it's amazing, but I interrupted you - please continue.
OLIVIA: No, that's so interesting! I wanna ask you more questions about that; but for me, I started doing singing lessons, and then I kinda realized... after a while... oh, I actually need therapy. It was this interesting, like, intersection of needing to express myself and needing to process things, and they're both happening simultaneously (trails off...)
COLLEEN: I'm also going to therapy! And I started going more or less at the same time as the singing lessons, so it's various therapeutic processes at the same time that all have to do with making patterns rise to the surface, externalizing them, and looking at yourself in broad daylight. That's not easy, but I think that's the way forward. I think singing and taking singing lessons goes so perfectly, hand in hand, with the therapy process.
OLIVIA: How is it doing singing lessons when you've been singing on albums? Is it a different way of approaching your voice?
COLLEEN: It is a different way in that I knew (trails off...) I'm very stubborn, which is very good in one way where I've learned to play instruments and record my own albums, but I think sometimes you reach a limit. You become aware that you're hurting yourself through bad technique. I did have a doubt about 2 years ago, where I had pharyngitis several times in a row, and I thought, "Hmm, I wonder, could this be?" I was coming back from touring, so I started to ask myself questions about my technique. But I was really worried that a teacher might put me off or might make me feel bad about my voice somehow.
Through some friends I met last year in Barcelona, both of them happen to take singing lessons with the same teacher. They'd say, "She's really amazing, you should try it." And so I finally, in January of this year, I decided to give it a try. And they were right, she's amazing. From the first lesson, I found out that the way I was breathing is totally the opposite of what she teaches. Immediately it turned everything up on its head - I'm not sure if that's the right expression in English - but it was pretty fascinating to realize I had been breathing was totally inefficient and creating tension. So it's about that and not creating tension in the throat, and in the process, I'm really expanding my range. We're mostly singing jazz classics, which has very little to do with what I do, but because I listen to so much music in general, and because I'm interested in songwriting, it's really interesting to hear how jazz classics are made. But it was really about building the right technique, and I think I really found the right teacher. I was really lucky in that respect.
OLIVIA: It's so cool to hear you talk about this. I started doing singing lessons because I was just so uncomfortable singing and so self conscious of my voice. I really wanted to sing. I was like... "I think I want to try, but I just can't get over my fear of it!" I met with someone I knew already, who is a singer and teaches informally. And it was really just to get more (trails off...) to have someone be like... "you're not as bad as you think you might be!" Encouragement really. And she did teach me breathing techniques, too. But you're making me want to go back again. Like, if you want to do it, if there's something in you telling you you should sing, then you should try to do that.
COLLEEN: Oh yes totally, and also without a teacher, I think it's also fine to try things your own way. I really believe (trails off...) I think it takes courage to sing. Besides the few people who are gifted with a good voice - they exist but there's very few of them. But um, I think for me, it was a major step out of my shell when I first started singing publicly. And I was terrified. When I first started singing on an album in 2013, so I was actually already 37, I already had 3 albums behind me, and right until the last minute I thought, "Oh, maybe this is a huge mistake." And then finally I was able to realize that no, it wasn't a mistake. It's another option that you have, it's something else you can do. There is no dichotomy between instrumental music and music that happens to have voice and lyrics. I really think it's part of the same package. I think that takes off some of the anxiety. If you play other instruments, think ok this is a new instrument I am trying. So maybe it is going to sound mediocre at first, which is how many people are on a new instrument at first. But then with technique, at least with practice, it's impossible for you to not get better.
OLIVIA: Yeah, that's a good way to bring yourself out of it a little bit (laughs) Thinking more objectively, or something, about it.
(Then we hear "Revelation" from The Tunnel and The Clearing, as well as the track "Break Away", from the first album she ever sang on.)
OLIVIA: Do you have a favorite song on the album?
COLLEEN: That's really hard. I really like the opening song, "The Crossing." That's the song I was working on last. I was going through new emotions when I was recording that song. It was the last one, so I was starting to see the clearing at the end of the tunnel, maybe. Maybe I have a special feeling for that one. It was actually the first one I started to work on, the day after my partner left, but then it ended up being the last one I worked on because it wasn't as strong as the other ones. Because usually that's what happens - you work on an album, and the more you work on it... so I worked on it for 6 months, from May until December, that was the day I ended the album... and as you go along, you get better. You go further with the songwriting, with the production process, with your playing technique. I was about to record that opening song and I thought, "Oof, it's not as good as the rest."" I actually took the ending of that song and made it the beginning of the song, and I thought, "Oh wow, it's a beautiful - almost a metaphor!"
(Then we hear "The Crossing")
OLIVIA: You chose two songs for us to listen to today - what did you choose and what made you choose them?
COLLEEN: I chose a soul song from the 60s, I think it's from the late 60s, from an artist Marvin L Sims. I don't think he's well known at all, but the song is called Danger. And it's a song that I knew before the breakup happened, but something happened after the break up. I wasn't able to listen to music for 3 months. I just couldn't do it. But when I did listen to music again, everything felt so raw. When I did hear music in the streets in Barcelona, because Barcelona has a big tradition of street musicians, sometimes I would literally start crying because I felt moved by something. In a way, that was the good thing of going through something tough. It made me reconnect with the incredible emotional power of music. I think especially with heartbreak and grief, if you're grieving someone's death, music becomes so powerful. That song, I somehow kept thinking about it. And I listened to it again, and it took on a stronger meaning, and I think just the interpretation is amazing. The music, the production. I became more sensitive to soul - I think soul, apart from the 60s, which is another love of mine. The lyrics, you could say they are borderline simplistic. It's very much, "I love you, but you left me." (laughs) But then that's also the strength of it. If you're going through the same type of stuff, and the interpretation is great, then it hits you.
And then the other song, the band is called The Green Arrows, they're from Zimbabwe. It's an early 70s recording, and it's called Madzangara Dzimu. I really love this band. They have amazing guitars and a really tight rhythm section. I've listened to a lot of African music for many years. I guess since 1999? More than 20 years. Both traditional things, field recordings, but also recordings from the 60s and 70s. This particular song gives me so much energy, and I'm so in awe of how the bands from that era in Africa were able to get amazing sound with what I imagine were very rudimentary recording processes. I'm guessing it's a couple mics in a room and just everyone playing together in a tight way. I find that very inspiring. My music is different, but I'm very much into things being permutated and circulating, and sounds bumping into each other. I think that's something that happens constantly in African music. So it's always an inspiration, and I think that band in particular is really amazing.
OLIVIA: I'm so excited to listen! Thank you for doing that.
(Then we hear "Danger" and "Madzangara Dzimu")
OLIVIA: If you had to cover an artist- who would you chose and why? I know this is a hard question but... (trails off)
COLLEEN: Yeah, especially because I haven't ventured into doing cover versions so much. Apart from a song I've covered in various versions actually - the song from the night of the hunter. I've done several versions of that. I was thinking about your question and I rediscovered Low's discography recently, in the last couple of years. I know Alan and Mimi a little bit. I was a huge fan of their first album when I first heard it when I was 19, so we're talking 1994. And I followed their work for many years. Then I concentrated on other types of music. But I started to really listen to everything they've done and reevaluate their influence on how I've approached music. Realizing that they're a band that - they're all about minimal, efficient songwriting. The way they play, the way Mimi plays the drums... I was actually thinking of her when I was playing my drum machine. And also obviously - she's actually probably my favorite female vocalist. I'm in awe of their vocal harmonies; I think Alan is also an incredible guitar player. So anyway I was listening to their music, and I think if I had to cover something, I would love to cover a cover they've done of Wire. They cover the song Heartbeat on the boxset, A Lifetime of Temporary Relief. The way they cover it is very striking - extremely minimal - and I have been tempted to do a version.
OLIVIA: Man, I'm so excited to listen to it now, I'm gonna play that version up next.
(Then we hear Low's version of 'Heartbeat', followed by the cover that she mentions that she has done called 'Pearl's Dream.')