ABOVE: WOODKID. PHOTO BY SANTIAGO FELIPE
Woodkid is a critically acclaimed director, artist, producer, and musician who directed videos for pop stars Lana Del Rey, Drake, Rihanna, and Katy Perry. He made a sad remix of Pharrell Williams’ hit “Happy,” which currently has over 1,600,000 YouTube views. He was born in Poland under the name Yoann Lemoine in Poland and raised in France, and he’s currently living in Williamsburg. Woodkid released his first EP, Iron, in 2011 and The Golden Age, his first album, in 2013. He often spends an entire year on his videos and “Run Boy Run,” his single, was nominated for a 2013 Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video. The Sunday Times of London described him as a “dark epic pop wunderkind.”
Woodkid has composed an original score for an eight-minute pièce d’occasion for the New York City Ballet Orchestra titled Les Bosquets (New Woodkid/JR) that will premiere on tonight, April 29, at the opening of the Company’s 2014 Spring Season. The ballet will be performed by more than 40 NYCB dancers and Guest Artist Lil Buck, the Memphis jookin dancer who has worked with Madonna and Yo-Yo Ma. JR, the award-winning artist, conceived and directed the ballet based upon his experiences during the 2005 riots in Les Bosquets, a Parisian housing project inhabited by immigrants. JR’s huge photographs were illegally pasted on the streets. He calls himself a “photograffeur,” since he uses the streets as his art gallery. This is his first project as a director.
GERRY VISCO: So you use the name Woodkid? I’m sure you’ve been asked a thousand times, but what the hell is that all about?
WOODKID: The project is about the transition from childhood to adulthood. I decided to make the show very visual and to create that transition through all kinds of materials in a symbolic way. I created an environment in the songs and the production that was very organic, emotional, that would be childhood—it was very wooden, because I come from the countryside. I made this slowly radiant transition within the songs, within the lyrics towards something more mineral, something more digital with more heart. So it’s the story of a kid who comes from a very organic, tender environment who slowly turns to marble. I describe in the lyrics, he petrifies himself.
VISCO: And how did this idea come to you?
WOODKID: It’s pretty much what I have experienced. I was a very mellow, soft, and sweet kid when I was young.
VISCO: But you’re not anymore?
WOODKID: I got tougher, and being in an urban environment doesn’t help. It’s part of the process of being an adult. Suddenly you’re confronted with problems you didn’t have to face as a kid. I talk a lot about the loss of family, of that protection. When you grow up you transform the protection you have with your family to something that’s a hard, like an exoskeleton. So that’s what the story is about—how you transform from a very soft body to something more impressive, more defensive.
VISCO: But you still have vulnerabilities?
WOODKID: Yes, there’s my childhood side. I’m obsessed by childhood, because it tells you a lot. When I discovered I could be an artist, the only way I could do things that felt true would be to relate them to my childhood, which was a time when I wasn’t formatting anything through social constraints but acting in a very instinctive way. Whenever I think about art, I want to create something I’d like. I don’t like something because it’s cool or because I’ve seen a film two weeks ago, but what do I genuinely like? I always return to my childhood.
VISCO: You grew up in a small place in the woods?
WOODKID: I grew up part of my life in Poland with my mother. We moved to the countryside of France when the wall in Berlin fell. My memories of childhood are of trees, fields, and the river, not being in the city. I’m not a street kid. Urban environments tell us a lot about humans.
VISCO: Why did you move to the United States?
WOODKID: I’ve always looked for something exotic, so living in the countryside, I wanted to go into the city. Because I grew up as a gay kid, I wanted to find people like me. It was easier to go to the city. And I’ve always been fascinated by America in a positive and negative way.
VISCO: What were the negative things about the U.S. that scared you or were different than you expected?
WOODKID: I had my American experience was when I came to New York in 1999 for the first time. We were in the bus for this whole trip. I’d been saving money for a year. It was a big deal for me, traveling had a real value, much more than it does now. We took the bus, first to Philadelphia, and then I arrived in New York by bus, not by plane. We arrived in Brooklyn and crossed either the Williamsburg Bridge or Manhattan Bridge. I had that vision of the skyline as I saw it for the first time. Somehow I wanted to live in this place.
VISCO: You think a lot.
WOODKID: I have a very busy brain. I have to make it calmer. I’m constantly thinking about the world around me and in terms of career, I always think about the future. I model myself on musicians or artists that have lasted for a long time. In a world where everything is very spontaneous and everyone wants the maximum very quickly, I’ve taken time to release my videos. We’ve been working on this album for four years. The first single was out three years ago, so it’s a very long process, because I want to give value to the things I do.
VISCO: Your work is both music and visual. Is one is stronger than the other?
WOODKID: It depends on how you look at it. A few months ago, I spent some time with Philip Glass, who was telling me this, and it resonated with me. He told me to take any type of visual and to pair it with different types of music. The music will always change the perception of the visual. It can make it ironic, emotional, and dark. You can use different images in a song but it will never change the perception of the song. So in that sense the music is stronger. But it’s a love relationship I have with both, so I’ll always try to connect them, and both will always be in my head
VISCO: Do you conceive first of the music or both?
WOODKID: It’s hard for me to say. I’ve always been listening to music, and it’s always been listening to it that has been triggering visuals. Whenever I write I’m actually listening to music. I need that inspiration. It’s like fuel. But I started as a visual person because that’s what my parents are. My parents are creative directors. My father had me draw when I was young, and so it started, but I was taking classes on the piano at the same time, so it’s always been both.
VISCO: In other words, you’ve been creative since you were a child?
WOODKID: I’ve always been in a very creative environment. My parents’ friends were painters. My uncle is a music teacher. My cousin is a very big cello player. My brother was playing the guitar. My friends were listening to a lot of music. So I’ve always been surrounded by art.
VISCO: Tell me about the project. How did it come to you, and what’s your objective?
WOODKID: It came through JR, the artist who was asked to choreograph the ballet. I think the ballet was Peter Martin’s, so I had this crazy idea to have people who’ve never done ballet before do a ballet, which is very daring and creative. JR is an artist known for his collage and pictures all over the world. Lil Buck is a young street artist. He’s been asked to be part of the choreography of the ballet. The piano piece is going to be played by Jon Batiste, and they asked me to compose a piece for the orchestra.
VISCO: So what was the collaboration?
WOODKID: JR came to me with the idea. It was an interpretation. We started talking about it six months ago. His idea was to interpret the riots that happened in 2005 in Paris, a setting that’s powerful for me because I lived in Paris. That’s where JR’s friends are, and we basically wrote the concept together. He explained the elements he wanted to have in the ballet, and I created the segments of music with rhythm, so the focus would have a nice progression, and then we had the dancers dancing to it. He came back and made a few modifications. But the music came first, which was interesting.
VISCO: Is this the biggest production you’ve done so far?
WOODKID: It’s different. Some of my shows are pretty big, like the ones in Paris.
VISCO: But have they had dance, too?
WOODKID: Not dance, but orchestras. The main difference for me is that it’s a fully orchestrated piece where I don’t perform.
VISCO: So you’re not performing. Are you directing at all?
WOODKID: I’m not directing, I’m just going to be in the audience. So when it’s starts, I’m done. There’s nothing left to do.
VISCO: Maybe you could get up and dance a little.
WOODKID: I’m not closed to the idea of learning how to dance. Lil Buck is not a ballet dancer, but he’s an incredible dancer.
VISCO: You don’t do dance professionally?
WOODKID: No, but since I’m a director I’m interested in motion. I’ve had to dance in my music videos, so I’m interested in the way I move on stage. I’d be interested in doing a ballet myself. That’s something that might happen this year.
VISCO: What is the theme of this piece?
WOODKID: It’s called Les Bosquets, a neighborhood in Paris where JR shot his first pictures and started sticking them on the walls with the idea of giving back the streets to the people who live in them. This is the same place where the riots happened. Some journalists were taking pictures of the riots and on the walls were some pictures that he pasted a few years before. So his friends there were into the idea of the riot. JR returned to Les Bosquets, where he no longer lived, and went illegally into the empty buildings that were deserted a few days before they would be torn down. He stuck massive pieces of portraits on the wall, like half an eye on one floor, on the other floor a second eye, on another floor a piece of the nose, and on another floor a piece of the mouth. When they started breaking down the buildings, the whole faces appeared in the walls on a massive scale. The whole project was very impressive. When the New York City Ballet asked him to do the performance, he decided to use that theme in the ballet, so it’s basically a riot scene, which is very interesting by turning it into dance movements. The music has a very tribal chaotic structure.
VISCO: How is this different from your videos? You’ve been doing your own music videos for four years. As a musician, how did you decide to start doing them and do you even call them music videos?
WOODKID: Yes, they’re a nice frame around my music. I worked for other artists on videos for almost 10 years now. Somehow my videos got big and I really didn’t see that coming. It comes from my deep passion for connecting images with sound.
VISCO: What should people expect when they come to the New York City Ballet show?
WOODKID: I love photography, so I did a lot with the projections and the lights. It’s pretty spectacular because the sound is very big and I’m triggering a wide range of emotions. It starts very mellow and it goes into massive orchestration. It’s a strange mixture of classical music, film score music, tribal beats, and songwriting.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON LES BOSQUETS (NEW WOODKID/JR), PLEASE VISIT THE NEW YORK CITY BALLET’S WEBSITE.