The French pianist co-produced three songs from When I Get Home, the magnificent album that Solange has just released. He describes how this sophisticated R&B was created by a handful of musicians jamming in a lavish house overlooking Los Angeles.
Have you listened to When I Get Home very much since its release?
I listened to it two or three times from beginning to end, and I’ll continue to do so periodically, because there’s something happening there. Nothing narcissistic about it. I just think that the girl is a free spirit; she does twisted things. It’s not pop music. Although I also think that When I Get Home isn’t Voodoo.
Is D’Angelo’s album better than Solange’s?
Voodoo marked its time, in that its creator had arrived at a point in his career when he knew how to produce, sing, place Debussy’s chords, and be perfectly stylish, all while having big abs! But I really like Solange and a song like “My Skin My Logo,” with its trap charleys. She’s understood everything. This stylized and slightly intellectual R&B reminds me of Jill Scott’s first album. Voodoo had an impact in the sense that we had imagined this music without ever having heard it as such. Whereas Solange is right on time, without being in the lead.
How did she hear about your work, before she invited you to open for her concerts in New York and Oakland?
My album Big Sun, about carnival in the West Indies — that was released in 2015 and that I have been playing live for a long time — also has a museum life. It was part of the EN MAS’: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean exhibition in 2015 at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans. Its curator was Claire Tancons, who also invited me to present Nola Chérie in 2008. Solange lives in New Orleans and that’s how she learned about my work. She finally contacted me when she realized that my drummer, Jamire Williams, who plays with people like Herbie Hancock, went to the same music school she did in Texas. Jamire and I received an email from Solange and her husband, Alan Ferguson, who directs videos for Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe. They also know my Indiamore project, on India, by heart; in depth, like musicians. That means a lot to me. That’s how I ended up opening for her. I work with confidence, like with Frank Ocean.
Is the collaboration with Solange comparable to the one with Frank Ocean?
It’s not very different. In both cases, we’re dealing with pop stars. The working conditions are luxurious but they are also serious artists, hard workers.
How did she ask you to take part in When I Get Home?
Jamire and I were already in the United States for a concert and she contacted us and invited us to join her in a huge house she had rented, with a 360° view of Los Angeles. There was a Rhodes, a drum set, and thick carpets. We stayed there for four or five days with her sound engineer, her bass player, one of her keyboards, her husband, and her son. We listened to Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” Minnie Riperton, and we worked all the time. Earl Sweatshirt and Flying Lotus came to visit us; I like this family.
What was the process? You listened to music, jammed, recorded everything, and then cut?
The time was very well laid out. Professionals at this level know how to organize a setting so that the vibe, when it appears, is captured in good technical conditions. Everything was in place to produce music that was both spontaneous and sophisticated. We jammed, we recorded, and small competitions appeared between whoever proposed what … always in a positive spirit. In conditions like that, all musicians play well and the sound engineer himself is obviously very good.
What do you think you contributed? Your work on harmonization?
Yes, I think so: French chords from the early 20th century, and things heard in Ennio Morricone. Even if Americans have been feeding on European music for a long time, especially in avant-garde R&B.
Did you have any discussions that were not directly related to music?
When we talk about music, we are talking about creation, we are talking about politics. It’s bound to overflow, even if we haven’t addressed the situation of blacks in the United States head-on, for example.
Did she know exactly where she wanted to go or was she hoping for suggestions?
She’s very open. She sings very well, she’s knowledgeable, she superimposes her voices with the sound engineer, she knows her process, and she knows how to use the material she creates. She’s been doing it since she was little. She filled in with Destiny’s Child when she was a teenager; she knows everything about this industry. She’s a professional.
Had she already composed the songs and was she looking for ideas to orchestrate them?
Nothing was set. She just wanted to set up an atmosphere to create with the greatest fluidity. At one point, I realized that we had to isolate ourselves to create more sophisticated things. We went down to the basement and I interviewed her. I asked her to talk about her: how her parents met, her childhood memories. I recorded this discussion, then cut it up and harmonized some passages. This is found, for example, on the opening of the album when she says, “I saw things I imagined.”
You are listed as co-producer on three songs (“Things I Imagined,” “Can I Hold the Mic,” and “Dreams”). Did you play them as they were or is it the result of cutting?
It is the result of collages, of parts that fit together, like Lego. But I’m happy because I hear a lot of myself on the album, even though I’m only one piece of the puzzle.
Does the album reproduce the atmosphere that prevailed in that house?
In part, but most of it was done elsewhere, in the studio. It’s a different world. You can feel the computer. But it’s beautifully produced.
Does Solange’s success lie in producing sophisticated music while remaining popular?
Yes, and that’s also true on stage. I saw her in concert and she’s really playing, it’s not fake. She doesn’t need the computer I was talking about. She masters the very essence of jazz history. Like Miles Davis, she is able to say everything with a simple bass line. It’s obvious on a song like “Cranes in the Sky,” which is on the previous album. It’s stylish, thanks in part to the fact that she listens to a lot of different things. She even listens to me, that’s how curious she is!