The voice is both plaintive and bright; beguiling and stark. It knocks around a quiet range of expression, yet it sings directly—of Marx, erotic transgression, and “the Dinosaur law.” And it might have cheekily soundtracked a Volkswagen commercial or two.
The voice belongs to Laetitia Sadier and after 20 years with avant-pop bands Stereolab and Monade, she’s released her solo debut The Trip. If the comparisons to the ‘Lab (as she calls them) are unavoidable, that’s only because Sadier’s voice is so distinct. But The Trip boasts by far the freshest set of sounds Sadier has made in over a decade. I spoke with her by phone in advance of her show at (le) Poisson Rouge this evening.
How’s your day shaping up, Laetitia?
Well. I just came back from a tour of Germany today. It was exactly a week—I played seven shows in a row. And it was a fantastic, fantastic time. I just saw someone on Facebook posted photos of last night’s show from Heidelberg. So I was just looking at me [laughs] from last night.
Are you playing solo or with a group of musicians?
Solo, at the moment.
I’ve seen video clips of shows you did last year on your own in Brazil.
I know those clips. At the moment, I feel this YouTube stuff works more against me than for me. When I played Brazil I was basically starting and I had little clue of how to shape the performance, you know? I needed some proper touring because practicing alone at home is not very productive for me [laughs]. I like to think I’ve come quite a way in terms of knocking my performance into shape. So I’ve done a couple tours that have helped me consolidate my vision of how I want to sound. But when I see those clips on YouTube, I think I’m not too sure I’d want to buy a ticket to see that, you see?
I have to say as someone who’s listened to your various bands for a long time, it’s really exciting to see you out front and with the focus being on your voice. One of my favorite things about The Trip is how upfront your vocals are.
You know, it’s really nice to hear that because I just played a tour where the show would be full in one place, and then the next day 14 people turned up.
Of course there’s the whole issue of how shows are promoted and albums are written up. And those things often have very little to do with the relevance of the work at hand. For instance, I don’t think a lot of people who reviewed your new album really appreciated how much more intuitive it is than Stereolab albums, which always struck me as very fastidious in their arrangements.
On my first records with Monade, the lyrics would dictate the music. And I really, really liked that process because it was unlike how we worked with Tim [Gane, Stereolab co-founder and Sadier’s ex-husband]. Because Tim would write the chords first, then a bassline, then a melody. And you see, I find that very controlling. It’s like a lack of trust. But I have suffered from that too in my own work—this desire to control.
I’m trying to let myself be guided. But I think you have to be ready to be guided as well, you know. When you’re not very mature you want the control. And when you’re mature, you trust. You trust a kind of natural order—that there’s nothing to be scared about. And that’s why “Summertime” ended up on this record. Because if it was me and my brain and my ego, I can assure you I would never have put “Summertime” on my record [laughs]. Because it’s one of the most covered songs. And there’s nothing experimental or cool about it. It was the corniest thing one could do, you know.
Why did you call the album The Trip?
Because I’m letting go. And it is a trip in that respect: to learn to let go. It’s not easy. Originally, I wanted to call it American Art.
It sounded good and it was evocative and it sounded a bit weird, as well. But then I was discussing it with my boyfriend and he was like, “nah, you can’t call it that.” [laughs] And after thinking about it, well, it’s about my little sister and it’s about her journey. So “The Trip” kind of leaped out and my boyfriend was like, “keep it simple!”
Is it true Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me” was the first record you ever bought?
Oh, yes. Oh, dear.
[Laughs] Do you still have that record somewhere?
Something else that sort of caught my attention: when you were a teenager, you used to fantasize about songwriting. What kind of songs did you dream about writing then?
Well, you know, they were songs I had in my dreams.
I think it’s a normal human quality to have little silent melodies that are in your mind and you don’t actually voice them. And I know if those are suppressed they can come out in dreams, which is what would happen to me. They would be the most sublime melodies. Much better than any melody ever written.
Do you find yourself chasing those melodies when you’re writing a song?
How close do you get to recapturing them?
[Mock wistfully] Never close enough.
[Laughs] Yeah. Tell me what the Smiths meant to you first time you saw them.
They meant wilderness. [pause] They meant originality. [pause] They meant urgency.
Well, it had to be now. I’m talking of the early days of the Smiths, the early singles. They quickly lost me actually. But that first album has that first flash of energy when you first do something—crack! It’s so beautiful, you know. Very wild—and urgent! It’s just like “we’re just going to do this.”
I must say I was a teenager when Stereolab started to get some play in the States. And you were the first band I really cared about. Starting with Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996), I would eagerly await your releases and then immediately buy them and study all the lyrics and cultural references contained in the music. I learned about so many great filmmakers and designers that way. I imagine the Smiths had that sort of impact on you.
Hey, you know it’s really funny because I remember Morrissey would praise (filmmaker) Joseph Losey, you know? Right now, I am going through a period where I’m watching all the Joseph Losey movies. God, they’re great! I just finished watching Accident.
Oh, I haven’t seen that one. I’ve only seen Eva and Secret Ceremony—
And The Servant, as well. Man!
Is that the one you would suggest I see?
The Servant. Yes!
Awesome. I’ll definitely check it out. I feel like we should wrap up with a proper music question. Let’s try this one: Are there any sounds and styles you’re eager to explore as a solo artist that were maybe out of reach when you were in Stereolab?
Well, the ‘Lab’s music was very layered and I have the desire to get naked. I want to cut more to the essence rather than layer, layer, layer. To me that’s just protection. So I want to strip that away. That’s were I’d be heading. But at the same time I like experimental effects. And earlier I was talking about wanting to control less because that means you’re stronger and more centered. And the vision gets stronger as you let go and not try to be perfect. You know what I mean? I find it really boring how people are really “applicated” as we say in French. You know, like someone writing—Really. Precisely. Each. Letter. Somehow I find that insufferable and I want to see something leap out with more spontaneity. But I think to be spontaneous you need to be well grounded. Then you can let go.
Laetitia Sadier plays at (le) Poisson Rouge tonight.