IMAGE COURTESY OF DAVID THAYER
The music world's introduction to Laetitia Sadier came with her former band Stereolab, sometime between the demise of cassingles and the rise of the mp3—the '90s. Back then, as now, she cut a mysterious figure. In band shots, she wore well-tailored though unfussy vintage clothes and swept her black bangs across her forehead with the iciness of Simone de Beauvoir's Mandarins. Onstage, she mostly stood still, with her eyes closed, opening them from time to time so she could aim her index finger at an out-of-tune Moog synthesizer. And in songs, she nodded toward such subversive figures as American avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage and British satirist Chris Morris.
For sussing a person out, these were scant details to work with, sure. But they added up to the impression that Sadier was impossibly cool. And when we received our first assignment to write about her, the cliché "never meet your heroes" flooded our head like one of Sadier's nursery-rhyme vocal hooks.
Sadier disproves the old saying. As it turns out, the French-born singer-songwriter is an extraordinary conversationalist. Sadier speaks thoughtfully, in a low melodious voice that often pauses to find a wry and insightful turn of phrase.
Interview rang her during the first week of summer. She was wrapping up preparations for a tour of Europe and the States to promote her second solo album, Silencio. After a quiet debut (2010's The Trip) tethered to the simple charms of pop song structures, Silencio is a bolder statement. Its synths swell with more ache than on her previous album, and its percussion clangs with new African and South American accents. Sadier has never made a record where she's pushed her voice more to the fore than she does on Silencio. Fans of her old band will be happy to note a touch of audacity has returned to Sadier's art.
ANDREW STOUT: Hello, Laetitia. Where in the world are you right now?
LAETITIA SADIER: I'm in London.
STOUT: Oh, fantastic. So it's five p.m. there. How's your day shaping up?
SADIER: Very nice. We're having very English weather. It's sunny—several times a day.
STOUT: [laughs] We're having the very same weather here.
SADIER: In Portland?
STOUT: Yes, in Portland.
SADIER: Oh, I like Portland.
STOUT: And what do you like about Portland?
SADIER: I find people aren't so self-absorbed like they would be in New York, for instance. [laughs] Or possibly Los Angeles.
STOUT: [laughs] And what do you make of the self-absorption of New Yorkers?
SADIER: They have no consideration for others. It's all about me, me, me, myself, and I. And everybody operates like that. I think it makes you a more evolved person when you realize you're not the center of the world—you're just a center, you're just your center. So I find New York a difficult place to be for that reason. Even in the cafés and restaurants it's always "I-my-my-my-me-me, my shrink, my shrink." And it's like, my God, what is your shrink telling you?
STOUT [laughs]: That kind of talk always strikes me as a status thing, anyway.
SADIER: Yeah, you're right. It's like, "I'm very aware and I look after myself and my little psyche." Which is very thick indeed! [laughs]
STOUT [laughs]: You just spoke of the need for empathy within friendships, which is a very difficult thing to achieve. For how long has this been a value of yours? Did you reach a point in your life when it became more important to open up?
SADIER: Yes, of course. And every day I still have to learn and it's not always easy. Every day I see a baby in me that just wants to scream "I want it now!"
STOUT: [Laughs] What are the kinds of things that will awaken the baby in you, that might prompt you to shrink your perspective a bit?
SADIER: Well, I have a boyfriend who has children, and we're trying to organize the summer, and it's not easy. Because one has to accommodate everybody. So that was my challenge today, for instance.
STOUT: Because you're touring the new record?
STOUT: Which, by the way, it's an extraordinary record. It's called Silencio, which begs the question: why silence?
SADIER: I had this title about a year before I finished recording. It began with a strong impression I had in a church when for the first time I consciously experienced real silence. And as a result of this silence, I found myself reconnected to myself, quite simply.
STOUT: That sounds so beautiful. Where was the church?
SADIER: It was in Zamora, Spain. There were five or 10 people in the church with me. And there was always someone taking a step or there was always a bird going "ert, ert!" from outside. Or something! The wind or a plane outside. Surely, there was always something. Then! There was this moment where, actually, there was nothing! And of course, a moment like that can only be fleeting. But it did last long enough so I had time to really feel it and establish that connection.
STOUT: Were you brought up with religion?
SADIER: Yes, I was forced to go to church every Sunday and receive all these masquerades of communion and confirmation and I was taught to be "god-fearing" and all this. So as a child, you receive all these messages and you see the reality and you think, "Uh-oh!" You know? All these messages of, "Life on Earth is bad, and it's a punishment." And you're taught that only if you punish yourself enough while you're alive will you have access to this place called paradise and everything will be okay. But if you dare to enjoy your life you will go to hell. So, my God, what kind of message is that to send to little children, who are totally innocent of any of that shit? So I was really, really angry with the Church. At some point, I couldn't set foot in any church. I would just feel anxiety immediately.
STOUT: What changed to make it so you could step into the church in Zamora to find that silence?
SADIER: Well, the sacred aspect of life came back knocking on my door—but not with religion and churches and blah, blah, blah. But it actually came from my dreams. And at some point, it was so strong I couldn't ignore it anymore. And I had to realize there is a sacred aspect to being alive. Which, of course, forces like capitalism totally strip away. Because you can't buy sacredness, and you can't sell it. But it came back knocking, and I knew anyway that churches were built on pagan sites. So beyond the facts of religion and priests and all that—this is nature. The church sites are much more ancient and much more real, as well. So I was able to re-enter churches and enjoy them, too. Of course, I'm a singer. And the church is one of the best places to sing because the acoustics are so fantastic. And not only sound, but silence is amplified in a church. And—wow!—it feels so good.
STOUT: Well, we've covered religion, let's try politics. Your lyrics are often politically engaged—at least on the level of ideology. It's about the only aspect of your work I don't always connect with, because I find it hard to take politics seriously—contemporary politics just seem so divorced from reality and so absurd on their face. I wonder: if a person really wants to make a better world, then maybe that person is better off focusing less on politics and more on replicating the fleeting examples of beauty they find in the world, such as what you found in that church in Zamora. In other words, maybe making art can be a political act, without necessarily having a political message. Is that a cop-out?
SADIER: I don't think one excludes the other. I don't see why politics should exclude beauty. I know you like Pier Paolo [Pasolini]: he was such an aesthete, and I think his politics inspired that in him. And I think it's worth leading political battles for the sake of beauty. Because the system is destroying beauty. And it's amazing how it replaces real beauty. But I feel like the system really perverts beauty and gives formatted versions of beauty. Like with processed foods. Processing sugar and wheat. You know, all the black that is taken out of sugar is actually the life. And the white stuff is the dead stuff, and it's the stuff you can put on a shelf and leave up there for three months if necessary. Then there's the women in magazines, who have to have hair like this and teeth like that.
STOUT: And it's all completely Photoshopped.
SADIER: Yes, I mean [long pause] I'm sitting here in the back bedroom. Outside there is a bit of sun and some wind. And the wind is blowing through a tree. And in the tree there's a bird—a big pigeon. A big, big beautiful pigeon. And he's just clinging to this branch just enjoying the wind. [laughs] He looks so beautiful, I feel I'm almost hallucinating, you know? But the system wants to process the life out of these things.
LAETITIA SADIER'S SILENCIO IS OUT TODAY.